Is Your Open Office Causing a Creative Crisis?

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting




This post originally appeared on Agency Post. To read more content like this, subscribe to Agency Post.

Whenever Ben walks by, he comments on the design work prominently display on your monitor. He typically thinks you need to move everything to be center-aligned. Jane -- the one with the constant cough -- believes that the secret to convincing a client that an idea is brilliant is to speak above a normal decibel level. And Susan's mom packs her lunch, which usually includes some form of meat that smells like a hot dog wrapped in ham.  

Sharing an open office can be "revealing" for employees in many ways, but the main goal of these no-wall floor plans is to increase creativity and collaboration. This is why so many agencies are renovating and revising their offices to create more open spaces. 

Havas Chicago recently spent $10 million dollars to renovate its office, an 81,000-square-foot space that houses 450 employees. In creating its new digs, the company got rid of all offices and included more communal work spaces. The agency now occupies two floors instead of three.

barbarian-groupBarbarian Group's 1,100-foot-long desk.

The Barbarian Group also redesigned its New York office last year. It decided to get rid of all desks, save one: a 4,400-square-foot table with a price tag of $300,000. All 125 employees sit along the undulating, snaking desk that provides five feet of space per person. This "super desk" was inspired by Mother London’s 250-foot concrete desk.

Another agency recently revealed its new office design, writing in a blog post that, “The complete interior renovation features sleek, modern designs in an open workspace environment to enhance creativity, inspiration, and collaboration.”

The idea seems to be that openness, shared desks, glass wall meeting rooms, and few -- if any -- truly private spaces increases collaboration and creativity. But what if that assumption is completely false? What if your open office plans are actually a detriment to the creativity of your staff?

A 2011 study found that employees who moved to an open office space perceived that communication had improved, but they reported that they felt less productive and creative in their new setup, citing noise and visual distractions as two of the causes.

The Rise of the Open Office

The open office concept was created in the 1950s by a team in Germany who though it would improve communication and “idea flow.” Now, almost 70% of offices have open floor plans. The move away from layouts filled with gray cubicles took off in the late 2000s -- a combination of both a design trend and the rising cost of real estate.

However, the agency world caught the open office bug a little sooner, as evidenced by Jay Chiat’s undertaking to create a “virtual office” in the mid-1990s. The experiment was a disaster. One woman brought in a red wagon to wheel her belongings and papers throughout the office, while the private spaces that remained started turf wars inside the agency.

This was an extreme case with a lot of different problems, but research has shown that open offices cause decreased concentration, a result of more frequent interruptions from colleagues. In addition, the constant exposure to noise reduces performance and motivation and increases stress. Others claim that innovation and experimentation decrease due to the fact that employees feel they are constantly under scrutiny.

While companies are tearing down walls between employees, the average size of a person’s workstation is also shrinking. In 2010, the average was 225 square feet. CoreNet Global, an association of real estate professionals, predicts the average space allotted for each worker will fall to 151 square feet by 2017. When Zappos employees moved into their new headquarters in Las Vegas in late 2013, the workspace allocated shrunk to less than 100 square feet.

The open office trend is benefiting one industry though: sound masking. Cambridge Sound Management told The Boston Globe that its business had tripled since 2011, with most of its rise in business due to open office plans.

So while people are getting closer, companies are doing more to separate them, either through partitions or noise-canceling headphones. This contradicts one of the benefits of open environments: that these types of environments cause serendipity. Employers hope that a certain amount of planned chaos will bring people together, spur conversations between people of different departments, and prompt great ideas. The famous example of this is the collaboration between a chemist and a product engineer that results in 3M's Post-it notes.

Cubicle_landHowever, the backlash to the no-walls, no-privacy environment has already begun. Some even predict a move back to the cubicle, which was introduced in 1968 as a way to solve the issues associated with open offices popular in the decades prior to the introduction of Herman Miller’s "Action Office."

The problem is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Our office space shouldn’t make us feel claustrophobic, nor should we liken our workdays to spending time in a kindergarten classroom. If we're going to make workspaces smaller, then we can expand private spaces and structure our offices to increase productivity, imagination, and collaboration.

How to Make Work Work for Our Brains

The first step is recognizing that our environment does affect the way we work and how well we do our jobs.

There are instances where collaborative spaces make sense. There are also times when we need privacy to focus. And there are ways we can structure and create spaces that actually improve productivity, collaboration, and creativity. 

1) Add a bit of greenery.

In Your Brain on Nature, the authors discuss a study that found that participants reacted faster and made fewer mistakes after viewing images of nature.

Adding landscape imagery, planting a garden, and creating more spaces with views of nature can reduce stress and anxiety and even improve health. Studies have shown that hospital patients with a room of a view heal more quickly.

Barkley, a Kansas City-based agency, has a 25,000-square-foot rooftop garden.


Google’s Tel Aviv office features an indoor orange grove.


Venray installed a hanging garden above its conference table.


2) Give people control.

Want to motivate your employees? Give them control. A study found that people are happier and more positive when they have control over where and how they work.

This could mean giving staff the opportunity to work from home, or letting them work at different hours of the day. It could also mean investing in rolling desks and chairs so people can organize their spaces depending on whom they are working with that day.

3) Plan for private spaces.

Creating comfortable private spaces is one of the best ways to balance the open office trend. Areas where no cell phones, loud music, or talking is allowed can also be helpful.

Synapse’s Seattle office includes high-back sofas that are both comfortable and private.


Migo’s office includes small sheds for heads-down work.


Three Rings has a secret library.


4) Make some noise.

Noise disturbance is an issue, especially for companies that have taken over reclaimed buildings that have high ceilings and concrete floors. Invest in a noise canceling machine, or buy your team an awesome pair of headphones.

Capital One Labs in San Francisco installed sound-absorbing panels that hang from the ceiling.


5) Create overlap zones.

University of Michigan researchers found that when scientists worked in a space where they ran into one another in areas known as “zonal overlap,” they were more likely to collaborate. It’s not always about the proximity of people working but about how much they interact.

In building Google’s new headquarters, the architect is designing the space to increase the number of zonal overlaps. Rachel Emma Silverman of The Wall Street Journal wrote,

Every worker within the 1.1 million-square-foot, multilevel complex is expected to be within a 2½ minute walk from each other. The firm and its architect, NBBJ, looked at how fast people can walk and measured the diameter of the space from multiple angles. (An ‘infinity-loop’-shaped pathway slopes through the building, connecting employees to each other.) In addition, the floor plan is narrower than typical offices, keeping teams in sight range of one another.

Zappos adheres to this idea as well. They've experimented with space in its new headquarters, which they call "metric collisionable hours," referring to the number of probable interactions per hour per acre.

When designing these spaces, think of how people move throughout the day, where they go, and what spaces would cause people to run into each other more frequently. Instead of installing a coffee pot in each department, create one destination space for caffeine addicts. 

Landsor Windsor created a lunch-room feel with picnic tables.


Grupo Gallegos’ staircase is the definition of zonal overlap.


Wunderman’s open kitchen is a great meeting place.


6) Design collaboration spaces.

Build areas that are specifically for collaboration. These should be placed throughout the office, so that people won’t be discouraged to use them because they are too “far” away. This will encourage staff members to get away from their desk and their computers, if even just for a few minutes. And it will cut down on chatter in the areas where people are trying to get work done.

ICRAVE placed larger work tables between rows of workstations.


What do you think of the open office concept? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.


Cubicle image via Wikipedia. Featured image via Office Snapshots.

Topics: Office Space

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