Identikit open-plan offices don't work
David O'Coimin, March 19, 2020
Your space should be designed to reflect the needs of your workforce, and accommodate those you may be looking to attract
Businesses have embraced open-plan thinking, but in the vast majority of cases budgetary considerations have limited any further design flourishes. These open-plan workspaces are rather uniform – same carpet, same colouring throughout. And they are having a negative effect on business performance.
This kind of space makes the very basic assumption that all employees are the same. It assumes that everyone will respond well to the environment and will embrace the culture of the collective to the benefit of both employee wellbeing and company performance.
This is simply not true. Several factors combine to rubbish this notion of a one-size-fits-all workspace.
Keep the noise down/turn the noise up
Take the issue of noise. An open workspace is vulnerable to issues of excessive noise and, paradoxically, over-quietness. Such conditions can cause employees to become over-stimulated, irritated and tired. The World Health Organisation estimates that workers in open-plan offices take 70% more sick days than home workers, equating to a financial cost to European businesses of £30 billion.
Some constant noise of certain lower frequencies can be fine, and even useful. However, the open office creates a cacophony of varying noise that the brain generally struggles with. Conversation between colleagues, constant phone calls, video calls, calls on speakers – all contribute to a difficulty filtering the variance in sounds, which leads to distraction and poor concentration. This affects a person’s ability to focus and, consequently, productivity falls.
An overly-quiet workspace also leads to problems for people and organisations. The lack of a base of ‘comfortable’ noise in which to talk and move around means that some people become uncomfortably self-conscious about the noise they make. It also means that any louder noises seem amplified. The booming voice of extrovert Dave from sales shakes people from their focus, resetting their concentration clock, which depending on the task and the person can take on average five to 15 minutes to bring back to full operation.
Accommodating different brains
It is not simply a matter of acoustics. Everybody is to some extent differently abled – ways of thinking and operating differ from one person to the next. This neurodiversity cannot be shoehorned into one type of workspace. Indeed, to do so is a recipe for problems, which can result in higher levels of absenteeism and in the worst cases burnout.
Different types of brains (e.g. introvert vs extrovert, neurodiverse, autistic), different types of tasks (e.g. programming vs brainstorming), and different times of day (mid-morning vs immediately after lunch vs just before home time) form a three-dimensional matrix of conditions, and therefore needs, from a workspace.
The most forward-thinking organisations are now recognising and accommodating neurodiversity. Not only are they adjusting their recruitment policies and HR processes they are also re-evaluating the workspace itself. Decision-makers have begun to think more deeply about the benefits of leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individuals. Some of the world’s most recognisable brands are now actively seeking neurodiverse talent in the knowledge that the potential returns from such employees can be great.
No need to reinvent the wheel
Creating a positive workplace for every employee does not necessitate a complete design overhaul. Spending some time to investigate the following topics will reveal ideas and solutions that can be implemented to the benefit of all:
White noise – helps to create a base comfortable noise level into which people feel more open to be themselves. Also helps to mask varying noises.
Acoustic panelling – (wall panels, ceiling panels, room dividers) used not just to make sound reverb in a space less, but also to sub-divide areas with differing functions and noise levels (eg finance team vs sales team/programmers vs dining area).
Withdrawal spaces – places close to work desks that people can hop casually into for a respite or a conversation. Ideally these should provide separation without totally isolating users from the workspace.
Mindful room – an isolated, quiet, private space where people can go to really detox and recharge. Find a way to show when it's in use to minimise interruption and provide guidelines for usage.
Biophilic elements – the addition of green natural elements (even fake plants or simply the colour green) is proven to make brains happier. Plants also have a valuable acoustic effect, breaking up sounds.
Good communication and inclusivity – explore the issue in an open and collaborative manner, enabling people to be part of and own the solutions.
Office design has come on leaps and bounds from the rather depressing and dingy offices of the past. But the evidence is clear – the trend for open plan just doesn’t cater for every brain and therefore every worker. The one-size-fits-all approach is only serving to suppress talent, increase absenteeism and affect productivity.
There is a huge pool of untapped neurodiverse employee talent out there, and businesses of every size are starting to understand the value of embracing individuality. Change needn’t be dramatic or expensive. It takes businesses thinking differently – and adapting accordingly – to accommodate workers who think differently. By understanding individuals organisations can perform better as a whole.
David O’Coimin is founder of nookpod.com