Market Insight: Guest Articles Open Plan versus Enclosed Private Offices:
A Review of the Research by Knoll
March 2007

The debate concerning open plan offices versus enclosed private offices has resulted in a body of research that explores the pros and cons of both approaches. For the purposes of this discussion, we are defining “open plan” as an environment comprised of low horizon systems solutions and enclosed private offices as offices constructed with dry wall and a door. The research results can be grouped into three general categories: culture, communication, and cost. Each of these will be briefly explored herein, with research attachments intended to provide greater understanding and depth to the issues. There is a fair amount of research available that supports the move to open plan offices, and it generally falls within the realm of functional and technical performance, operational cost reduction, and, where appropriate, improved organizational communication and knowledge sharing. The category that is most often overlooked, however, is culture, possibly because it is the one category that is the most complex and the most difficult to gauge and measure. Culture can be broadly defined as “the way things are done around here.” It includes organizational values and behaviors, belief systems, management values, expectations and attitudes, and employee values, expectations and attitudes. It is also important to consider values, attitudes and expectations imposed from outside the organization, since the external world can often influence internal expectations.

Culture

Knoll has conducted research that begins to uncover the relationship of the physical work environment to employee attitudes, expectations and satisfaction. One key result concerning open versus closed work environments can be found in Knoll’s study entitled “The 21st Century Workplace.” It should come as no surprise that workers who most value the private office, and absolutely feel they must have one to be productive, are workers who are currently housed in private offices. In contrast, workers least likely to value a private office are those that currently have no more than a desk in an open space. This result begins to address the issue of worker expectation. Generally speaking, moving a worker from a private office to an open plan workstation is perceived as a takeaway, which in large part explains the difficulty organizations encounter when trying to migrate from enclosed workspace to open workspace standards. Additionally, while many corporations have spent more than a decade attempting to eliminate status associations with the physical work environment, more than half of the workers that participated in our study acknowledge that the kind and quality of space one is given is related to one’s status within the organization.

This perspective becomes even more interesting when we consider the technical performance of private offices versus open plan offices, reinforcing the conclusion that the issue is truly perceptual rather than technical. Armstrong World Industries recently conducted a study to determine the acoustical effectiveness of dry wall offices given current construction practices, meaning that the walls do not extend through the ceiling plenum. Armstrong found that dry wall offices, even with the door closed, only achieve 75% acoustical privacy compared to 8’x 8’ open plan offices with 60” acoustical panels, acoustical ceiling tiles and sound masking which achieve 93% acoustical privacy. It is also important to note that the trend toward smaller offices is having an impact on the performance of open plan solutions. According to Armstrong’s research, a typical open plan office in the 1980’s was a 10' x 10', while open plan offices for professionals today are typically 8' x 8', or even smaller. This fact impacts perception as well as acoustical performance.

Communication

Communication, and the need for greater and lesser degrees of it, can generally be considered a component of the work process, particularly in today’s organizations, where it has been demonstrated that the rapid exchange of knowledge and information can lead to greater levels of worker productivity. Oftentimes, the desire for higher levels of communication translates into environments that are more open, with lower panel partitions. However, it has been demonstrated, that this assumption does not always lead to a more productive work environment. The kinds of tasks being performed require careful consideration when making decisions about open or closed offices.

Knoll conducted a qualitative study among high technology workers that revealed preferences for open or enclosed work environments based on the type of work being done at the office. Computer programmers, who tend to be more social and collaborative at work, expressed that they simply require open plan workstations that afford a level of privacy referred to as “seated height privacy,” in other words, you cannot see over a panel partition while seated. Software developers and engineers, whose work tends to require higher levels of concentration and freedom from distraction, reported that they would prefer a private office with a door. In the absence of a private office, they are willing to work in open plan environments that afford standing height privacy, meaning the ability to stand without seeing over the panel partition. DeMarco and Lister reported on the relationship between privacy and productivity for high technology workers in their book, PeopleWare. The team studied the output and performance of technology workers in environments that afforded privacy, quiet and freedom from distraction. They found that high tech professionals working in such environments performed significantly better than workers in environments where they could be easily interrupted.

The University of Southern California, Los Angeles, also demonstrates the relationship of the physical work environment to work process. Their three-year research effort revealed that companies who had reengineered their business processes, making workers more interdependent, and then supported these work processes with open, collaborative environments actually realized productivity increases averaging 440% (see Harvard Business Review article, Breaking the Functional Mindset in Process Organizations). The key to achieving results such as these is that the physical environment and the work process actually complement each other, rather than compete with each other. Simply placing workers in an open environment, without attending to work process, does not mean they will collaborate, or that productivity increases will be realized.

Below are excepts from the attached Knoll study “The Second Bottom Line: Competing for Talent Using Innovative Workplace Design,” where workers identify the pros and cons of open and closed space:

Summary of Benefits of Open Space

  • Most appreciate the sense of community an open spaced work environment instills in them
  • Space allows for better communication and exchange of information among co-workers. It is easier to ask each other questions in an open environment
  • Some preferred being among other people, not wanting to feel “closed in” or “all alone”
  • The open work environment also allows some to know what’s “going on” in the office—being “in the know”

Summary of Benefits of Closed Space

  • 9 in 10 state that privacy is the number one benefit of a closed space/work environment
  • The idea of having walls around you, keeping roving eyes from drifting over to your work and “your space” makes some feel more secure
  • Another key benefit of working in a closed space is the reduction in noise
  • A closed space can also translate, for some, into more room/space. It usually connotes an office or larger work/office space

Cost

Today’s workplace is characterized by increasing facility churn rates; the need to achieve higher densities, and a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure, all conditions most effectively addressed by open plan furniture solutions. In fact, second generation systems products that are more capable of managing technology while improving the flexibility and reconfiguration of the work environment, make a sound business argument for investing in open plan environments. Through case studies, Knoll clients have demonstrated the business value of investing in high performance systems products that dramatically reduce the cost of change (attachment D). In order to create an effective, efficient, high performance work environment, there are several key issues that companies need to consider: (1) flexibility that supports and enhances organizational change; (2) creating work environments that enhance employee satisfaction for attract and retain purposes. “Open plan” does not automatically translate into low panel partitions that do not provide adequate worker privacy; (3) ability to innovate while maintaining installed base; (4) technology accommodation and integration; (5) ergonomic adjustability and adaptability to unique worker requirements.

About the Author

Knoll is a global furniture manufacturer recognized internationally for creating workplace furnishings that inspire, evolve and endure. Their commitment to innovation and modern design has yielded a comprehensive portfolio of office systems, seating, files and storage, tables and desks, wood casegoods, textiles and accessories. Locally they are located at 317 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. For more information, contact Jennyfer Aguilera, Business Development Director, 415.837.2115 and visit their website at www.knoll.com

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Dear Friends, Clients and Colleagues:

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