Office layout presents a catch-22: done right and you don’t notice the effects, but done wrong, and you run the risk of jeopardising creativity, productivity, and team member happiness. So what is an employer to do?

Does having an organic vegetable garden or an indoor treehouse enhance or hamper the workplace environment? Dr. Tina Seelig writes in her book, inGenius: A crash course in creativity, “Space is a key factor in each of our habitats because it clearly communicates what you should and shouldn’t be doing. If you live and work in an environment that is stimulating, then your mind is open to fresh, new ideas. If, however, the environment is dull and confining, then your creativity is stifled.”

We’ve come a long way from the “cubicle farms” of the 1960’s, but are we headed in the right direction?

Where Did the Cubicle Come From?

When the original cubicle was unveiled in 1964, it wasn’t actually a cubicle at all. “Called Action Office, it was the brainchild of Robert Propst,” writes Nikil Saval for Wired.com. Propst was, “Among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to the environmental enhancement of one’s physical capabilities.”

The Action Office consisted of a standing desk, a ‘communications centre’ for making phone calls, and came in an array of bright colours. The elements of the office could be rearranged, and it was the first time that office furniture design took into consideration that there would indeed be real live humans using them.

Despite this, the Action Office was a commercial failure. “The product won a few awards within the industry,” writes Saval, “but otherwise saw little actual adoption in the workplace.”

Propst did not give up on his dream of the ideal office furniture and later emerged with Action Office II. Propst’s new design had 3 adjustable walls, with variable shelves and tack board to allow for “individuation.” The idea was that the walls and shelves could be arranged and decorated in whatever way the team member desired.

Sales for the Action Office II, and its many knockoffs, took off. Unfortunately, the workspaces were not used as intended. “It turned out that companies had no interest in creating autonomous environments,” writes Saval. “Instead, they wanted to stuff as many people into as small a space for as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Instead of flexible spaces, you were more likely to find a grid-like pattern of Action Office II desks, all with 6-feet tall walls, creating barriers to collaboration and communication. Sounds pretty depressing right? Thus, the cubicle farm was born and, with it, thousands of unhappy team members.

The Open Office Alternative

Oddly enough, the open office layout was born at about the same time as the cubicle farm. In 1962, Frank Duffy, then a 4th-year architectural student, discovered a, “New workplace design,” writes William Kremer for BBC.com, “that had taken hold in Germany.” It was called ‘Burolandschaft,’ meaning “office landscaping.”

“A glance at a layout chart from that time reveals desks scattered in a seemingly higgledy-piggledy fashion,” writes Kremer, “with desks butting up against each other every which way, and clustered in work zones of different sizes.” Duffy describes the layout as, “Fundamentally a reaction against Nazism,” and eschews a top-down, military approach to office design.

Even today, the open office layout is far from rows of workers at desks, with only the top management receiving private offices: everyone is sitting together, managers and discussions are flowing freely. It is the favoured office layout of startups from Silicon Valley to Vancouver, in part because it’s a cheaper alternative to constructing multiple private office spaces.

An open office can even save time. When GlaxoKlineSmith surveyed their team members who switched from cubicles to a more flexible office layout, “[They] found email traffic dropped by more than 50%,” writes Rachel Silverman and Robin Sidel in The Wall Street Journal, “While decision making accelerated by some 25% because workers were able to meet informally instead of volleying emails from offices and cubes.”

Anyone that has worked in an open office layout can attest to the fact that it’s great to walk up to your colleague and ask questions instead of emailing. Although, it may be a different story when your colleague walks up and interrupts you.

The harsh reality of the open office layout

As it turns out, the open office is not the haven of creativity and productivity it was once assumed to be. “There is such a thing as too much communication,” Kremer writes, “proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the previous night’s TV, or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.”

“There is such a thing as too much communication,” Kremer writes. “Proximity to our colleagues makes it easier to have a spontaneous micro-meeting, but it also means we have to sit through their deconstruction of the previous night’s TV, or their shouting matches with teenage children over the phone.”

It might not be quite so awkward at your office, but the effect is the same, so it’s worth noting that open office spaces aren’t all sunshine and rainbows.

Not to mention that humans are awful multitaskers. Sure, we can complete some tasks simultaneously, like watching TV while folding laundry. However, “Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time,” says Julian Treasure, a leading sound expert and past TED.com speaker. That includes the voice in your head and the voice of your colleagues.

The ease of communication in the open office layout is clearly disruptive at times, especially when you are working in what psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “a state of flow.” Flow is most often disrupted by multitasking and distractions (in order to write this post I had to camp out in a boardroom while listening to music without words).

“It can actually feel really good to multitask,” says Scott Crabtree, the founder and CEO of Happy Brain Science, on FirstRound.com, but do not be fooled. “Data suggests that you’re slowing down your performance, making more mistakes, and as Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass would say it, ‘becoming a sucker for irrelevancy.’”

Psychology research shows over and over that when people multitask they perform worse, lose their focus more often, and work more slowly. It’s time we admitted that we can’t multitask.

Furthermore, open office spaces usually don’t provide a safe haven for team members who fall on the introvert end of the spectrum. This can be a huge hinderance in regards to their productivity levels: a big no-no.

Tips for optimising your office layout

“Forget all the crazy offices designed to make team members more creative,” writes Jeff Bradford for FastCoExist.com. “In reality, you only need a few simple things for everyone to get the most of their workplace.” Here are a few tips to make your office layout work for your team members.

  • Create flow zones: Even if you have an open office layout, that doesn’t mean you’re resigned to distractions. It can be easy to create areas within the office that can be used by team members who want to get into their flow state. Try designating one boardroom, or an office with a door, as a silent workspace and allow team members to book the room.
  • Maximise natural light: “Studies prove that natural light has mood-enhancing effects that encourage creativity,” writes Bradford. Allow natural light to shine into your office without obstruction and make sure team members are in the best position to avoid glare on their computer screens. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to hear the buzzing sound of fluorescent lights all day.
  • Create pods of desks: “Sitting in circles provokes a collective mindset,” writes Christian Jarrett in 99u.com, “whereas sitting in straight lines triggers feelings of individuality.” If you do choose an open office layout, arrange desks together according to function to maximise collaboration and help your team members feel united.  
  • Allow for individualization: A 2010 study of London office workers found that, “Workers given the opportunity to arrange a small office with as many or few plants and pictures as they wanted,” writes Jarrett, “were up to 32 percent more productive than others not given this control.” An interesting perk for employees would be a small budget to buy their own choice of office supplies and desk decoration. Or, just give the ok to bring in a few personal items, such as a plant or some photos of their pet, whatever makes them feel a bit more at home.
  • Don’t stop at layout: Designing your office should not end with the positioning of furniture. Add art and colour, keeping in mind that different colours have different psychological effects on people. The point is to create an office environment that breathes life into your team.

Although we shouldn’t resign ourselves to doing things the way they have always been done without critical thought, there are ways to open your office layout without sacrifice. Keeping in mind the diversity of your team, following the tips above, and being mindful about the advantages and drawbacks of different office layouts will ultimately have a positive effect on your team members happiness and productivity. 

Over to you

What are your thoughts on open offices versus cubicles? Share your opinions with us in the Comments section.

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