Are open plan offices killing creativity?

Since Frank Lloyd Wright designed New York's Larkin Administration Building in New York in 1906, open plan workspaces have become the standard for office design, but do these spaces boost creativity or kill it?

Open plan is everywhere

The phrase "open plan" usually summons images of bad paintwork, noisy aircon and employees ranked together in long rows with little private space. And a glass cubicle for the boss.

Open plan lets employers cram more workers inside less space, while open plan evangelists argue that these spaces boost interaction and creativity by removing barriers between employees. This logic has become so pervasive that 80 percent of U.S. office space is now open plan, according to AllWork. So surely there's evidence of productivity benefits?

"No basis in research"

There are multiple scientific studies that show open plan offices increase stress and illness, reduce the ability to concentrate and reduce productivity.

A Harvard study concluded: "Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from office mates and interact instead over email and IM." Researchers found workers spent 70 percent less time talking, email use increased 50 percent and productivity declined across two Fortune 500 firms when they moved to open plan.

An Auckland University study found that workers in open plan offices have worse relationships with co-workers than you'll find in private or shared offices. Remarkably, workers working remotely have better relationships with each other than those in open plan offices.

A study across 42,000 U.S. office workers by the University of Sydney "categorically" contradicts the idea that open-plan layouts enhance communication, saying claims that these spaces improve productivity "have no basis in the research literature."

Plantronics Chief Marketing Officer Amy Barzdukas told The Australian that workers in open plan environments "lose about 86 minutes per day due to distractions."

Do you even need a desk?

When the research shows open plan offices kill creativity, the results of a Wall Street Journal employer survey are surprising. It claims that by 2021, 52 percent of U.S. employers will replace open plan desks with deskless offices in which no one has a fixed desk.

This kind of hot desking combines the worst of open plan with a sense of marginalization and new social tensions, according to Alison Hirst, Director of Post Graduate Research, Anglia Ruskin University in the UK.

Is it any surprise that when Unilever moved to this model, it found more employees chose to work remotely rather than indulge in endless games of musical chairs? Critics say this was because the office environment prevented people from being productive.

Offices with humans inside

Research from office furniture manufacturer Steelcase says workers need privacy as well as collaboration, want to work in inspiring spaces and also crave deeper relationships with colleagues.

Researchers such as Professor Stephen Heppell believe things like daylight, attractive views and good air quality help boost employee satisfaction, engagement and productivity.

The incoming Millennial workforce is even less accepting of classic open plan environments. A recent Oxford Economics study found that Millennials want "the ability to focus and work without interruptions" and "less noise in the workplace."

The late Apple CEO Steve Jobs famously believed in designing offices to foster collaboration. He rejected classic open plan design in favor of individual spaces combined with large central gathering spaces. He boosted staff interaction by equipping areas with food, entertainment and other positive reasons for staff to gather there.

Flexible workspaces

Harvard Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein suggests hybrid or flexible spaces should be developed within open plan designs. He argues that office design should be optimized for the work that is being done there, rather than following a one-size-fits-all approach.

Workplace Insights also argues that office design should be dictated by organizational need. They observe that there's a big difference between a well-designed open plan environment featuring private and public areas and a cavernous, silent room packed with desks.

Even offices can be flexible. At Rally Software, the R&D department has a flexible office space in which chairs, desks and even walls can be shifted around when required. This gives staff a sense of ownership and enables a completely agile workplace.

That's even before considering that different jobs have different needs – does everyone really need to hear the sales team's cold calls?

Do you even need an office?

Telecommuting and collaboration technologies can help create a better working environment even outside of traditional offices.

WordPress developer, Automattic closed its San Francisco offices because it found the entire company became more productive working from home. This reflects the findings of a Stanford University survey that claimed telecommuters became more engaged and productive and that staff retention improved as a result of remote working.

Gentle changes in traditional open plan setups may also help get productivity back on track: adding barriers between desks to provide privacy and reduce background noise, good lighting, use of sound absorbent materials and the provision of good lunch spaces can help this, according to Recruiting Times.

The bottom line, however, is that if you expect an open plan office to unleash new levels of employee creativity, all the research suggests you'll be disappointed.

Read how we designed our Orange Innovation Gardens to foster team working and ideation and the key things to consider in setting up a successful digital workplace strategy. Also read about the psychology of office design.

Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.