• Shana Fannon

The Failure of Open-Plan Design

About a decade ago, a primarily European idea came to our lovely shores; the idea of open-plan workstations and benching, workspaces without walls or substantial partitions. (This idea has been explored in home design for quite some time as well, but we will address the influence on home design later in this article.) It is a lovely idea in theory. The foundational argument promoted collaboration, breaking down the strict levels of hierarchy that existed for so long in corporate America thus allowing the flow of information and ideas to happen in a more direct and organic way.

Unfortunately, what it ended up doing is leaving people feeling they are in a constant state of vulnerability, having to deal with awkward eye contact. This awkward setting becomes even less successful when someone directly across from or next to you has to make or take a phone call. To have a moment of privacy, quiet, and the ability to flesh out problems, you must go elsewhere in the building primarily private phone booths or meeting spaces. Instead of being an oasis, open-plan benching systems become the place you need to leave to do what Cal Newport calls, Deep Work. This reverts the situation back to walls separating those who need or benefit from collaboration. Arguably none of us can live in a silo, I believe we are meant to live life together.

A deeper discussion is needed when considering massive change in any environment. An understanding of how your people work, their various job functions, and needed quiet and privacy may be obvious. I think that when companies desire to change culture, visual change feels like the answer. Take down the walls and the proverbial walls come down too.

Many companies have learned the hard way that changing culture is not easy. It does not change overnight-not even with new furniture. It may shift but not the way it should or the way you want or need it to as a corporation. The answer to one extreme is not another extreme, extremes are two sides of the same coin. Keeping people seated in high-paneled, extra-large workstations is not solved by giving them height-adjustable primarily open benching desks one third the size of the space they previously worked without tools for the transition.

Trends have to be reviewed and carefully considered to their fit with a corporate culture. A shift in culture has to happen prior to such massive change to prepare for the impending visual revamping. Programs, processes and ‘little nudges’ have to be put in place to continue to shape and mold the culture. Most change we are not comfortable with and massive change is downright disruptive if not handled properly.

There is an answer to all this openness. I do believe that certain companies, with particular cultures, benefit from open workstations. However, I also believe that most work environments, and for that matter, home environments, benefit from a balance of views to open spaces and private, quiet intimate spaces that allow and foster reflection, idea development and small group work.

To bring this home, literally, I have felt for some time that open plan homes; where the kitchen, living room, dining room and family room are all open to one another create an uneasiness and ineffectiveness much like the above described corporate environment. They create great site lines, but when you are in these spaces, they become loud, cavernous, overwhelming and not helpful for anyone who has a sensory disorder. Arguably even without a sensory disorder, the amount of stimulation can be too much for comfort for most people to handle on a regular basis. Think of a family with children running around and playing, family or friend gatherings, entertaining of any kind. What I find is on a daily basis the noise created by day to day life travels throughout the home, echoing into the bedroom area and other levels. Peace can be found only in an entirely separate space or lower level such as a basement or finished garage.

I don’t believe the answer is going back to completely walled up spaces. I believe the answer is a deep dive into corporate and family culture considering what provides openness and connection. What does your work and or family need?

Having open and flowing, and spaces that allow noise separation without extensive visual separation, or moveable partitions foster a needed level of privacy and quiet for everyone, without being devoid of connection. It’s about creating spaces that promote flexibility, inclusion and community.

What are your thoughts? Do you live or work in an open plan environment? Has your company the switched to open plan, are you still in old school workstations, or have you found that happy medium? What is your home like? How does your family function in your home? I would love to discuss any and all of these topics with you.

Please reach out via email at Shana@shanafannondesignco.com

Photo Credit Cubicles.com

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