Warning – Open Space Office Ahead

by Kathleen McMullen Coady

Warning - Open Space Office AheadOpen space plan is THE thing in innovative office design today. But when the bottom line is: ‘kiss your private office/cubicle goodbye,’ many employees become anxious, angry or heartbroken. And are messages that ‘it’ll be good for the team’ or ‘seniority is not recognized by having a private office’ really consoling to anyone losing privacy?  My experience is that most employees do not want to lose their domain—even if it is a cube—for the sake of innovation and creative encounters with their fellow workers.

For a transition to open space plan to really work, you can’t just have a great interior designer.  You need a company culture that is adequately open-minded, flexible and innovative to adapt to the changes it brings.  I have found that the cultivation of company culture is far more crucial to the success of how the employees interact than actual physical proximity.  To take advantage of innovative physical changes to an environment, management must take care to cultivate a culture that has an open communication style and permission to interact without consequence.

Permission to Innovate

Warning - Open Space Office Ahead

The idea of permission to interact and permission to innovate became more clear to me when I read the recent article in the Harvard Business Review, “Who Moved my Cube?” by Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks. Fayard and Weeks discuss Open Space office design that is “explicitly intended to promote informal interactions,” describing how “management broadcast the message that employees should find opportunities in the new space for ‘impromptu meetings’ and creative encounters.’” They cite research that indicates that Open Space Plans do not necessarily promote increased productivity, and studies that show that employees in open-plan spaces, aware that they may be overheard, have more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.  The article goes on to profile several companies and how “the Power of Permission in an office [where] people generally deem a space to be a comfortable, natural place to interact only if company culture, reinforced by management, designates it as such.”  What becomes clear is that proximity does not necessarily promote interaction, creativity or productivity.

I was recently asked to design an Innovation Center for a tech company just outside of Washington, DC.  I created designs for a flexible space, housing both permanent offices and an Open Space Plan with workstations, temporary creative brainstorming areas for client and meetup/cloud spaces, and a first class kitchen for casual and creative interactions.  We also included private spaces like telephone conversation rooms and flexible conference rooms.  I worked closely with the client designing through needs, existing parameters, LEED requirements, lighting and heating, and ideal space planning for a truly sustainable environment.

Warning - Open Space Office Ahead

An Ideal Open Space Plan LEED Silver Plan
Plan includes indoor-outdoor meeting spaces, oxygenating plants throughout, flexible conference rooms, small and large meeting areas, temporary and permanent workstations, glass-front private offices, community kitchen and a focus on traffic flow for impromptu meetings and informal conversations.

This company promotes itself as a leader in its field; but, my conversations with management mostly centered on how their market share is quickly being swallowed up by younger, more aggressive companies, marked recidivism, and on their inability to attract GenX and GenYs.  And no wonder.  At their grey-beige main office, I felt like I’d stepped back in time 15 years and into the movie Office Space.  Employees seemed genuinely oppressed, if not depressed.

Designers are in a unique position to have relationships across a wide spectrum at a company with the likes of CEO’s, CFO’s, HR staff, Operations Managers, and a variety of support personnel.  It is always of great interest to discuss a vast range of employee’s concerns and needs during a project.  It tells me a lot about the culture and it becomes clear who is calling the shots.  During the Washington DC project, everyone acted genuinely excited by the prospect of having a flexible, modern space for pet projects.  However, in turn, each senior staff person took me aside and made it clear that I was going to design a “nice office” for them, with plenty of privacy.  The open space plan was fine for everyone else, but they personally weren’t going to have it.  They were too important for this innovation business.

image credit: Tower Design Studio

Don’t miss an article (4,000+) – Subscribe to our RSS feed and join our Innovation Excellence group!


Kathleen McMullen CoadyKathleen McMullen Coady, LEED AP ID+C, is the owner and creative director of Mission Blue Design.  Since 1988, Kathleen has designed both graphics and interiors for a wide range of businesses including corporations, hospitality, restaurants, public service and homes. Her highly functional designs focus on color, artistry and sustainability.

No comments

  1. In my first job after college, I worked in a “bull pen” arrangement with abotu 30 other people at open desks. The noise was deafening, with phones, conversation and electric typewriters (this was pre-PC) constantly going. Plus, this was back in the day when people smoked at their desks!!! Eventually we moved to a cubicle-based (and non-smoking) facility… and it was a godsend. Personally I like cubes, if nothing more than for their sound-absorbing value. But I see the value of common areas where people can comfortably collaborate. IMO, an ideal office would have a cafe-like common area, where people could gather in comfortable chairs, as well as “micro-offices” where individuals could close the door and have private conversations and phone calls (not unlike private study rooms in libraries). Openness has its place, but so does privacy — whether you’re the CEO or the most junior person on the staff.

  2. I’ve never worked in a place that didn’t have an open space concept. Designers, programmers, and even sales (in some occasions) were in the same space.

    It’s not a good concept but I can’t think of anything better!

  3. Our office is open plan, personally I don`t mind it. Sometimes it gets a little too loud and affects my concentration but other than its fine.

    I can understand if you had your own personal hideaway in the office and it was swapped round to open plan.

Leave a Reply