New Zealand Law Society - Trending out: Should you plan for open-plan?

Trending out: Should you plan for open-plan?

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By Jamie Dobson

Despite scholarship, studies and surveys on the impact of open-plan office space designs repeatedly pointing towards risks to wellbeing, the drift towards working in open, agile environments continues.

The best office in the world, as voted at the 2019 World Architecture Festival, is new Auckland building B:HIVE designed by JASMAX. It is the largest leasable, co-working office in Australasia.

“It is a research-based exemplary example of a sustainable and flexible workspace. A great building where the needs of the users informs the architecture and not vice-versa,” said the WAF 2019 judges of the structure.

It employs human-centred design to foster a sense of community by making the office multi-functional yet attractive, with adaptable furniture, state of the art technology, as well as utilising modular and adaptable desk options. Greenery in the light-filled atrium makes you want to explore intricacies of the five cascading floors above. Further, a holistic interpretation of wellbeing involves work/life balance options, including a range of health and mindfulness activity classes and a food hall hosting business and community activities.

It’s pushing beyond the expectation that an office should merely conform to modern open-plan concepts, in turn standing up to the argument from research that these designs consistently impinge upon the mental health and wellbeing of those who work in such spaces.

So why has office design persevered with open-plan when it faces criticism at every intersection? To attempt an answer, we should chart the historic approaches to wellbeing that office design has taken and the subsequent critical lens which research tends to place over this practice.

Legal workplaces

Legal workplaces come in many shapes and forms and vary by type of law or needs and goals of a practice. Sole practices are likely to have closed-off spaces as do barristers chambers. In-house lawyers may operate in open-plan settings, depending on the size of the organisation. Open-plan design concepts include shared desking arrangements, collaborative and/or quiet spaces, utilising tech to make work spaces adaptable, maximising flexibility or planning for spaceless growth.

New Zealand architecture firm Warren and Mahoney has recently completed a number of fitouts for New Zealand legal workplaces and notes that: “designing a workplace is not a one-size-fits-all approach. To ensure an optimal design is realised, you must first have a deep understanding of the organisation’s strategic objectives, the people and culture and the clients that an organisation represents.”

Arguments on open-plan design for workplaces

Research on open-plan design focuses on the physical detriments to the health of workers. Early judgements on large ‘bullpen’ spaces organised for clerical work – where desks are either in rows or series of cubicles – criticised the ease at which noise carried and caused distraction.

Post-Second World War European social democracy provided an economic setting to experiment with new ideas of office work.

As a 2018 AUT study on a large law firm’s 14-month transition to an open-plan environment noted, noise distraction remains an issue (RL Morrison and RK Smollan, “Open plan office space? If you’re going to do it, do it right: A 14-month longitudinal case study”). However, it can be amended by designating quiet spaces and separating them from where meetings and other collaborations happen. Noise carrying across an office has been found to be a major factor in decreasing productivity. But does achieving the optimum productivity leave you fulfilled — or rather, merely satisfied?

The introduction of ‘landscaping’ offices in the 1950s began offering contemporary solutions to noise control. Post-Second World War European social democracy provided an economic setting to experiment with new ideas of office work. Large-scale reconstruction of European cities meant offices could be built out, as opposed to up. More floor space meant desks could be arranged with less uniformity by breaking up space with indoor greenery and curved screens, rather than walls or partitions. Alternatively-styled furniture began to mark formal and informal settings to shape interactions, in turn controlling volume across a space.

Despite these innovations in controlling noise, research has found that open-plan design often fails to encourage collaborations. In fact, the opposite can occur. Authors of the Harvard Business Review paper, “The truth about open offices” found that face-to-face interaction can drop by 70% in open offices.

In 2017, the New Zealand Medical Journal highlighted two key motivations identified for designing open-plan offices: cost-effectiveness and the new way to communicate power and hierarchy to encourage increased socialisation. At the very least an open workspace might only give the impression of a collaborative environment. Socialisation in work depends on the less visible anatomy, like culture, and individual’s understanding of their hierarchy and collective vision. Workplace policies should also be incorporated into a design or planning phase of an office to bring workers’ expectations together on how to collaborate in a planned office.

Planning positive, open legal workplaces

Warren and Mahoney note that knowledge is a core resource of any legal practice, while at the same time confidentiality and privacy are crucial aspects to delivering legal services. This undoubtedly affects staff capacity to deal with collaboration. One solution is to incorporate zoning for effective separation of open spaces, allowing staff to work together based on their varying needs. Maintaining this in an open space still invites visibility of leadership which is important for junior staff. It can offer learning and growth opportunities rather than create barriers to them, which may also make new staff feel more at home.

Some survey respondents of the AUT law firm’s longitudinal research brought up the feeling of being watched in their new open-plan office. The study’s author, Rachel Morrison, said the fact that those respondents were all women resonated more with the idea that women are socialised from birth to believe they are being looked at. Furthermore, some respondents who felt watched said it was good for their productivity as they were forced not to stray off task, where others did not enjoy the ‘fishbowl’ impression, feeling their performance was comparable to their colleagues.

Much of this speaks to what workplace behaviours should be encouraged and promoted. Talking about regular breaks, openly encouraging working flexibly where possible and even organising team-building events outside of work helps arrest discourse that you must be present in the office to perform work or even be approachable.

As for cost, Warren and Mahoney agree that planning an open office space can save up to 15% in real estate, but that doesn’t come without also planning for things such as how an organisation will grow. This comes back to assessing the strategy and goals an organisation wants to achieve. For example, building in flexible working policies helps plan for in-space growth, allowing to fit more people within existing limitations of space, while aiming to improve existing staff’s relationship with their workplace.

The New Zealand Medical Journal noted “where the decision to introduce shared or open-plan work environments is made, it should be acknowledged that this is a cost-based decision rather than an initiative to improve working conditions or productivity … little evidence for such benefits exists.” This overlooks the holistic approach to wellbeing leading office designs such as the B:HIVE are taking, as well as the limited impact a physical space can have on a holistic sense of wellness. Past research has only hinted at the need for office space to be designed in tandem with workplace culture and strategy.

The most justified grievance from the New Zealand-based research was that if staff are not consulted thoroughly throughout the planning and design process, the end product would not work for them.

Open office designs of the future will be about placemaking as it is people who make an office space a workplace. Therefore, planning open workplaces must include staff input to be successful. But it also pays to be realistic about what can change to tailor for your business when planning a change in physical environment.

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