There has been a lot of attention to the performance of open-space offices. Recently, for example, a Dutch television program created nationwide ruckus with a reportage on the cohesion between open offices and sick leave. It looked into and referred to a scientific study that was performed in Norway. But it doesn’t take a scientific study to know that open space office are dreaded by the very people for which they are created.

On the other hand, giving everybody their own closed office is NOT the solution. In this article I will briefly explain the fuzz and answer the simple question:
How to plan the perfect office when getting the balance between open and closed seems hard to get right and has huge implications?

The open office, again? Yes, again.

 It seems that the majority of users of open-space offices don’t seem particularly happy about them. The main causes are related to noise pollution and loss of concentration.

Savvy architects will counter that it is the badly designed open offices that create problems. Their open offices are performing as desired. And they are sometimes right.

Disgruntled end-users will counter with scientific studies that show that the amount of sick leave is higher in open offices. And they are partially right as well.
In the recent Norwegian study, for example, the average amount of sick leave days was 20 for people with their own office.

Workers in an open office had a higher average (22 days). A whopping 10% higher. Here comes the catch that television makers exploit. They mix up the open office with the shared office. But only when it suits them. Because the average number of sick leave days for workers in a shared office environment was !25% higher.

Furthermore, the Norwegian research states that it is natural to think that single person offices would mean a decreased risk of viral infections. They add the hypothesis that the sounds and movements of colleagues in open or shared workspaces, which are disruptive, could also be a contributing factor to fatigue and headaches.

They are probably not wrong.

If the closed office is so much better (less sickness, less fatigue, less disruption) why shouldn’t every employee get their own office?
Because from an economic, sustainability and productivity perspective this is a bad idea.

It is clear that a sub-optimal office landscape has huge implications such as; Higher than necessary sick-leave, higher CAPEX and OPEX due to increased size, a lot of unused desks, people that miss productivity due to sub-optimal workplaces for the particular activities they are carrying out. And the list goes on and on.

The real problem?
The real problem here is the unbridled generalizations: Only open office vs Only teleworking vs Everybody their own office. The answer is, of course, a good analysis of the actual (dynamic) needs of a group of knowledge workers.

The real solution!
So, how to plan for the perfect office with the correct balance between open- and closed workstations?
Some people propose new static norms for these ratios. We have already been invited by the dutch standardization organization to join a round table about possibly implementing these hard set of standards. But that is a bad idea. No organization is the same and no team within a large organization is the same. People should have learned from the mistakes of the past. Such rigid specifications doesn’t work. A great example of what’s wrong with optimizing for averages is the case of American jet cockpits in the 1920s.

Optimizing for averages is optimizing for no-one.  Collective customizations are crucial.

Instead, the real way to plan the perfect office with the correct balance between the various workplace types is as follows:

Step 1:
Listen carefully to what people need. Lets not primarily focus on what they want, because the average knowledge worker wants a lot, especially when his or her particular set of talent is rare. This will lead to entitlement and hierarchy based workplace concepts. These rarely perform as intended and are expensive to maintain.

Step 2:
Analyze behavior based on clear and well understood ergonomic patterns.

Step 3:
Program office spaces according to design patterns using clear parameters and allow for plenty of end-user involvement and iterations.

Step 4:
Be creative when transforming the programmed requirement into the design and keep involving end-users and track how the design matches the requirements and how the resulting design meets the design criteria. (i.e. evidence-based

Step 5:
Rinse and repeat regularly, as business changes faster than seasonal weather!

Following these 5 steps will give you a better understanding of the unique characteristics that make a single company perform better.

It is no surprise our software platforn helps you achieve and visualize these steps better than anything on the market!

Sources and/or further reading:

The end of average:

The open office and sickness:

The economics of the open office

About the balance in flexible offices; AFO’s