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The open plan office. A playground for ineffective management?

The open plan office: A playground for ineffective management?



Questions from The Facilities Management Press


A very bright FM journalist asked the following questions about open plan space.  The answers may be of use;


Question One
Research shows privacy in open-plan offices is a problem. With the return of cellular offices being non-negotiable, how do you think this problem should be overcome? 


Too often open plan space is installed as (a) a cost saving measure and/or (b) as a management device for increasing productivity.  Both options show a lack of knowledge.


The cost of staff massively outweighs the costs of marginal space.  Even the suggestion of “cellular offices being non-negotiable” highlights how crass space management policies can be. There is no such thing as a perfect space.  It is almost certain that some tasks will benefit from being conducted in an open plan area whilst others will benefit from the privacy of a cellular space.  Decent space pays for itself.  The problem here is that companies do not know how to measure productivity (how do you measure in an HR office for example) and so they measure cost savings instead.  This takes us into the toxic realm of business theory where scientific nonsense flourishes.

Dystopian systems such as lean and 'flexible working' are invoked because they ostensibly save money.  Yet they cost unmeasured millions.  These questionable practices require open plan environments.  It is, for example, difficult to impose teams and to monitor those teams in cellular space, so we bring down the walls with no usual reason for so doing beyond heuristic. 


It would be so much better to can the bunkum and snake oil and learn to measure productivity.  Then we can see how much money can be made and how much happiness engendered.  It is a product of over a decade of research that happiness and productivity are joined at the statistical hip.  So, if a company saves money with its open plan offices, it needs to calculate how much do these savings cost (e.g., I deny you a square metre of workspace saving the company £9,000 per annum and your output falls by £20,000…or by nothing at all).  The saving on its own is a hopelessly misleading statistic.  Because if privacy affects performance what kind of a mug denies privacy?

Question Two

What can an FM do to lessen the disadvantages of open-plan offices? 

Open plan receives a lot of flack; not all of which is deserved.  Banging the usual drum, open plan can provide collegiate, sociable and engaging spaces.  Sadly it is also the perfect space for specious practices, excessive monitoring and corporate penny pinching.


FMs can help considerably depending upon the authority they wield.  If the open plan space resembles a melamine featureless plain then enrich it.  Plants are a cost effective way of doing this, but art and much else produces similar effects.  On this point do not use corporate art, most people know why they are at work.  Save the corporate stuff for your visitors. Enrichment of a space is always good compared to a Spartan environment. Human beings are just another animal.  There is no beast on God’s green earth, from an ant to an elephant, that thrives in a plain unenriched space. Business theories can be so stupid.


If people feel as though they are in goldfish bowls maybe screens would help.  But the best thing any manager can do is to ask the staff what they want.  The worker in the space know its shortcomings better than anybody.  Then cooperate with the people to give them a space they enjoy.  The rewards are massive.  And by massive I mean up to a scientifically published 32% compared to a lean space.




Hope this helps.






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