Open plan offices: lazy, boring and passé

by FM Media

It’s time to admit that large open plan offices are an overwhelming failure, writes JOHN POWER. Australia’s office workers deserve better than stuffy, raucous, noisy children’s playgrounds as workplaces.

If I were to describe ‘flat, stacked, stuffy, sealed boxes’, you might conjure an image of a humid storage warehouse filled with rows of boxes of shoes, or perhaps a dusty delicatessen stocked with copious cartons of canned fish. Unfortunately, the above description refers just as aptly to thousands of office buildings scattered across the nation – large floor plan cubes strewn over the commercial property landscape like boxes on a highway following a freight truck crash.
Is there a reason why office-based buildings should resemble scattered cargo? Yes: box-shaped buildings, particularly those with linear, unopenable glass facades, are simple to design and engineer, cheap to construct, and easy to pass off as ‘glamorous’ in property marketing brochures (the word ‘Manhattan’ seems to appear frequently).
While such structures are appealing to developers for their affordability and alleged New York chic, many business owners are equally captivated by bold promises of sociological benefits that might enhance business productivity. Marketers of open plan offices invariably refer to:

  • closer staff communication
  • greater harmony between departments
  • higher staff numbers per square metre
  • lower overheads through shared facilities, and
  • easier monitoring of full-floor plan activities.

My interpretation of the above five points is somewhat different:

  • rather than ‘closer staff communication’, read ‘endless distraction’
  • rather than interdepartmental harmony, read ‘unwanted interruption’
  • rather than higher-density staffing, read ‘workers packed like sardines with no privacy’
  • rather than lower overheads through shared facilities, read ‘mind-numbing clatter, together with greater incidence of mass illnesses through shared pathogens and contaminants’, and
  • rather than easier floor plan surveillance, read ‘staff feeling like schoolchildren’.

It is no fluke that many contemporary Australian developers of these unimaginative, boxy offices – mostly towers but by no means restricted to high-rise developments – reference US-based skyscraper floor plan models, which are characterised by extra-deep floors that squeeze as many employees as possible into each level. Internal floor plan depths of 18–20 metres are common, as is the sense of social and environmental isolation experienced by workers.

While such massive open plan designs are obviously cost-effective, it is fascinating to note that many large-scale formats would be maligned – even banned – in traditional European settings. An excellent resource on this subject is ‪The European office: office design and national context, by Juriaan van Meel.1
In most Western European cities, where high-rise developments are far more restricted than in the US or even the UK, planning regulations have engendered a culture of lower buildings with larger footprints, designed specifically to enhance internal functionality while safeguarding external amenity.
Germany is an interesting example. “The most typical characteristic of German floor plans is their limited depth, ranging from about 12 to 14 metres,” writes van Meel.2 “The narrow floor plans have to do with the fact that German employees generally sit within 6.5 metres of a window, making it impossible to build deep buildings. This limited depth comes from the desire to give every employee the ability to open windows and have direct access to daylight and an outside view. The limited depth of German office floors is also related to climate control in buildings. The advantage of narrow floors is that they open up the possibility of using natural ventilation.”
The same principles, van Meel notes, apply to Sweden, Italy, The Netherlands, and European structures in general.
“Like most northern European offices, Swedish offices have relatively narrow floor plans. The majority of workplaces are located within a maximum of about six metres from a window, to provide employees with daylight and an outside view.
“Depths of office floors in Italy vary from 18–25 metres. In that respect Italian offices resemble the deep and compact British and American offices. In American and British offices, however, the full depth of the floors is used for workplaces. In Italy this is rare. Most deep buildings have double-corridor plans. Only the spaces along the perimeter are used for workplaces. The inner areas accommodate secondary areas such as meeting rooms, service rooms and vertical movement cores.”3
Finally, in a throwaway line that would make most Australian office workers drool, van Meel says: “About 80 percent of Dutch office buildings have openable windows and possibilities for individual climate control.”4
Clearly, daylight, as well as temperature and fresh air control, are important considerations in European offices. As an aside, it is crucial to observe that average monthly temperatures in The Netherlands, for example, vary from 2° Celsius in January to 17° Celsius in July. Features like openable windows, therefore, are all the more logical in Australia, which is far more temperate than The Netherlands.

The drawback of superior design and greater worker comfort, of course, is a higher construction cost.
As van Meel states, “A… crucial effect of this type of narrow floor plan is that construction costs tend to be relatively high. Because of the limited depth one has to build more frontage than in similarly sized deep buildings.”
Progressive facility managers and landlords in Australia, however, owe it to themselves to heed modern trends. It is not unheard of for workers to switch jobs in order to gain greater levels of comfort, health and privacy in alternative office environments. Improved staff retention and productivity, one could argue, would more than offset the higher costs of designing and constructing shallower floor plans.
The best offices are those that uphold home-quality standards of amenity, including openable windows, personalised climate control, fresh air, views to the outside world, privacy and minimal noise distraction. The more an office environment diverges from domestic standards, the faster employees will ‘think outside the box’ and go elsewhere.

‪1. The European office: office design and national context By Juriaan van Meel, OIO Publishers, Rotterdam, 2000
2. Ibid. pages 80-81
3. Ibid. page 115
4. Ibid. page 131

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