Last Friday Claudia Hammond presented her Radio 4 programme on The Search for the Perfect Office. It’s such a big subject and I was surprised to not find any on-line discussion on the programme. So I will attempt to start a debate here.
Like my previous blog on lawyer’s offices the programme soon focussed in on the open plan versus private office debate. On first listening I went away thinking that the programme was heavily biased against the open plan office. It started by suggesting that whilst open plan offices are cheaper they are a false economy as they do not support our work activities. I went away with the impression that only half of the research (that against open plan) was presented. The architects received a severe bashing for ignoring the research on noise distraction and designing buildings with their favourite materials, steel and glass, that reflect rather than absorb sounds. But a second listening revealed some well-balanced points hidden amongst the upbeat fluff typical of presenters following Radio 4s Woman’s Hour.
Random disgruntled office staff interviewed by Claudia suggested open plan doesn’t work because of loud voices and telephone conversations, colleagues drinking and eating at desks, in-trays spilling over, and supervisors less willing to give feedback in open plan. On face value I would say these issues are mostly behavioural rather than directly due to the design. Like in churches and libraries, we occasionally need to remind people how to behave in open plan and respect their colleagues. There was also mention of manager’s offices next to windows blocking out light to the other staff. But this seems a case against enclosed offices to me and one easily resolved with good space planning and allocation.
The more serious discussion was around privacy and distraction from noise. Dylan Jones a Psychologist at Cardiff University, found that the “evidence from the laboratories, that typically what we measure is that efficiency decreases by 10% to 20%”. He goes on to say that laboratory evidence also indicates that we never adapt to the noise levels as hearing is an innate early warning system. As an environmental psychologist myself I place little credence in laboratory studies – observing people in artificial environments leads to unrealistic results. Certainly trying to remember a sequence of numbers whilst be subjected to a monotonous conversation played through headphones is not typical of the real office. I would also argue that this kind of task probably only occurs for a short period of time in the real office, so the 20% figure only affects a small proportion of our work day; at other times we will be interacting with colleagues, on the phone and making presentations etc; see my related paper on measuring performance.
Anyhow, the psychologists on the programme continue by saying that three or more background voices are less distracting than one – which seems more like a typical office. Silence is also not the answer as we can then be overheard and we can more easily hear the occasional louder noise. We are distracted less by constant sound than occasional unexpected noises, so the constant background buzz of the open plan can mask the distracting noises. This is the basic principle of introducing pink noise in the office, but I prefer the recommendation of Julian Treasure who suggests introducing natural sounds such as birdsong or cascading water as a masking sound. This is in line with the thinking of evolutionary psychologists, covered in another paper, who propose we have adapted to a particular noise level.
One of the core benefits of open plan is that it facilitates creativity, interaction and team-working. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic agreed that open plan allows creative people to sit next to creative people, which in turn facilitates the creative process. However, he quite rightly pointed out that some people, the introverts, want to be creative alone whereas others, extroverts, want to be the centre of attention. We need to cater for all personality types in the office, whether open plan or enclosed.
Jane Carstairs tested whether open plan facilitates interaction by carrying out research on those moving from an enclosed office to open plan. She found that whilst communication on social matters increased, communication on work matters did not. I think she is missing a key point. Research overwhelmingly shows that a productive business depends on its staff trusting and respecting each other, and this often comes from building personal relationships, which is facilitated through social interaction. At the end of the show Alexi Marmot suggests that the Perfect Office is one that promotes trust and respect.
So the debate on the Perfect Office should not just be about open plan versus private offices. The office sends a message out about the company culture and how it treats its staff. If the company doesn’t provide a decent office space it is unlikely to treat staff fairly in its organisational matters.
When asked about their Perfect Office, the interviewees suggested the home, garden, shed, restaurant and piazza. One said it is wherever I am and need to be. Their responses mostly included elements of nature, control over interaction and choice of location. So whilst the actual design of the Perfect Office might be subjective, and so not attainable for all in a single space, offering choice could be a fundamental component.
Throughout the programme, the subject of hot-desking was skirted around and not presented in a good light. Also throughout the programme the solutions offered by well thought out and designed flexible (agile) working space were hinted at. Flexible working space allows people to work from home, in a café etc, but come in the office to interact with colleagues when they need to. Desk sharing allows some of the saved space to be out aside to introduce more alternative work settings that support quiet work, confidential calls, places to relax, and spaces to escape colleagues. Not having a fixed desk means that people can chose to sit next to who they work best with, avoid noisier colleagues, and even find spaces that have their preferred temperature and daylight levels.
However, a downside to hot-desking that was touched upon, and certainly needs further investigation, was the lack of personalisation. Jane Carstairs suggested that personalisation helps people cope with stress, as it offers a familiar and possibly secure environment. Clearly we need to explore the actual causes of stress (process, job fit, workload etc) rather than leaving it to photos, teddy bears, plants and gonks to resolve it. Personalisation only seems an issue for some people and not others. To me it seems more about territorial behaviour, the act of protecting ones space by marking it (at least in this case with paraphernalia rather than “scent”). I am not sure why territoriality applies to some but not others, but I suspect personality is a primary factor.
The programme did finish with a successful open plan office – Claudia seemed surprised to find one. Perhaps it was a case of more selective research despite there being plenty of case studies showing successful open plan and even flexible working offices. The office manager talked about the office offering good daylight, views out, desks not arranged in “battery hen” rows, good kitchen and breakout facilities, and more meeting space etc. But the key message was that they engaged with the staff and asked their opinion. I have found that involving the people in the design process goes a long way in creating the Perfect Office.
Postscript: I wrote this article from my shed/cabin at the bottom of my garden. I have a 1 minute commute, can arrange it how I like, I have privacy, good light and natural ventilation. When I need company I go visit a client or colleague, spend the day at the IoD (my London base) or go to one of the many networking groups I belong to.