Opinion: Do all open plan offices kill collaboration?

Opinion: Do all open plan offices kill collaboration?

Following a new Harvard study, a debate has ensued about open offices, which are being dubbed 'collaboration killers'. Rebecca Charbauski of Steelcase argues that instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, workspace design needs a multilayered perspective

Rebecca Charbauski, Steelcase, Workspace design, Harvard Business School, Office design, Open plan office

It used to be that a ping-pong table or other social amenities could attract talented people looking for a different kind of vibe at work. Today, the expectations are much higher. Creating a pleasant employee experience requires a deep understanding of what people need and how the workplace can best support them. A new study by Harvard Business School adds to a growing body of research, which indicates that people are seeking workplaces that reflect their changing needs. There is no one size fits all approach to workplace design.

The most recent body of research, published in July 2018, found that when people moved from cubicles to an open office without any boundaries, face-to-face collaboration plummeted. Instead of talking to each other, people used email and instant messaging more frequently. The results of the study have fuelled headlines declaring open offices a ‘collaboration killer’ and ‘the dumbest management fad of all time’. So, what now? Should everyone return to working in private offices?


A closer look at the study reveals researchers tracked people as they moved from assigned cubicles to assigned seats in an open plan. The new environment removed all elements of privacy. Researchers used wearable technology to observe how people interacted. The new space was a monotonous effort to bring people together. But, instead of promoting collaboration, this version of the open plan did the exact opposite. Face-to-face interaction dropped 70%.

In an interview after his study was published, associate professor Ethan Bernstein drew some conclusions from his results. He suggested organisations should consider “hybrid or flexible spaces” within the open plan among other things. He also pointed out that successful workplaces should optimise depending on the various functions and activities required of employees.

The idea that people need a diverse range of spaces to meet their changing needs throughout the work day is one Steelcase researchers and designers have been championing for years. It’s no secret that people often decry their open offices — frustrated by a lack of spaces to choose from and control over where they get their work done. But, it doesn’t have to be that way.


So, what do people want from the places they work in? A recent Steelcase study of global office workers found that although 77% of people have their own assigned workstation, the vast majority, around 87% spend two to four hours every day working someplace else. Digging deeper, the study showed 53% of people say they can’t find the spaces they need. While over half (51%) say they need an escape from working in the same place during their day, whether they were alone or with others.

The results are revealing. In addition to privacy and places to work together, people are seeking informal, inspiring workspaces. They’re looking to build deeper relationships with colleagues and 43% believe informal spaces can help build more trust. Good informal spaces provide views of nature, support informal interactions and offer access to visual and acoustic privacy.

It’s clear, people need an ecosystem of spaces to support the various types of work they do throughout the day – places to collaborate, focus, learn, socialise and rejuvenate. By paying attention to all these needs, the open plan can accommodate all the types of work people do. What’s called for is a holistic approach that integrates the needs of people, place and technology.


With the intensity of work today, leaders are expecting more and more from their people. To produce and create at a consistently high level, consider people’s sustained wellbeing which requires ergonomic support and comfort, elimination of distractions so people can focus and collaborate uninterrupted, inspiration and rejuvenation.

When it comes to place, people need an ecosystem of spaces to support all modes of work: focus, collaboration, learning, socialising and rejuvenation. In addition, they need: support for a diverse range of postures and privacy options, spaces that give remote colleagues a great experience so they can feel and act as if they are present in the room, and spaces that help co-located team members remain present and focused.

When people have a bad day with technology, they have a bad day at work. They need a range of devices and spaces to share information. They also want easy to use technology that’s smart and connected, so their ideas can travel seamlessly with them. Considerations include: gathering data so organisations can understand the spaces that best support their people and refine their workplace accordingly, giving people access to data so they can find colleagues and rooms quickly, providing spaces designed so the place helps technology be used more effectively and it enhances the place.

By creating a workplace that brings together people, place and technology, organisations can give people choice and control over where and how they work — something that co-relates directly with high workplace engagement and satisfaction. By putting people at the core of everything, the open plan doesn’t have to be a source of frustration. It can be a tool to help people and teams thrive.

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