Why the open office plan does not work

Privacy is a fundamental human right. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The open office plan is a one size fits all approach to design that was popularised in the 20th century by an architect, Frank Lyold. It is characterised by open spaces with minimal enclosed areas where employees sit next to each other, shoulder to shoulder, so as to promote a collaborative spirit while being economical.

The idea was perfect! Almost too perfect. An architectural gift. Companies could use this modern approach to show their affluence by creating Google-like spaces with proper lighting, airy offices and colourful rooms. Oh yes, ideas will spark, innovation will accelerate and employees will be more productive. Visitors coming to the office will walk in and say, “Wow, that is the dream”. But is this truly the dream?

Research done by Harvard Business School in 2018 found that rather than having a face-to-face conversation, 70 percent of employees preferred email. You look around and if the particular person is at their desk you send an email instead. This shutters the idea that office spaces are more collaborative.

So, why can’t we let go of this idea that is characterised by idealism and an unrealistic aim for perfection in the office?

The biggest flaw of the open office is that it does not take into consideration individual workplace needs. Encouraging interaction and collaboration is very helpful in cases where the teams are brainstorming or they need to be in sync. However when it comes to implementation of ideas and intellectual work, one needs space so that the mind is uninterrupted.


To overcome poorly designed offices, employees have been forced to come up with quite debatable contingency plans. Headphones for one have come to the rescue of creatives who thrive on uninterrupted work flow. It is literally the secret to your own “personal workspace” plus a good motivation driver. This works if your employer is headphone- friendly because it is viewed as an anti-social behaviour.

Privacy is a fundamental human right and lack of it causes unnecessary social anxiety (you may be aware someone is listening to your conversations). Phone calls are therefore taken on stairways, conference rooms and in extreme cases under the desk! This leaves employees feeling vulnerable and exposed.

Without a doubt, three of the most annoying sources of noise include phone calls, conversation and machines. This sensory overload eventually wears you out and lowers your concentration span. Add to the mix a toxic co-worker who won’t be quiet and you have no physical barrier in place to save you. Going to work can easily be a dreaded affair for most.

Today, it is practically the standard of design that is preferred by most organisations despite the fact that research shows it lowers productivity, it is sexist and is more stressful. A common argument is that open offices encourage transparency and protects employees from harassment thus the their increase in popularity over the years. Some people enjoy the freedom that comes with it but that is not the case for most.

Like everything we do. it is important to optimise what works best. Companies are beginning to incorporate designs that cater for both individual and company needs by introducing one or two private rooms ( a break room or quiet room). This is the first step in the right direction.

Evaluation of the cultural needs of your organisation and investing finances to build bigger offices is necessary for an effective design plan rather than slapping the google-like plan on all organisations.

Let us all hope that the next idealistic idea will be more successful.

The writer is a graphic designer, Business Daily