Gensler: Open plan offices need more variety for top performance

by Brianna Crandall — September 16, 2016 — A new study by integrated architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler reveals that variety and choice in the workplace environment tend to drive creativity and job satisfaction. Gensler’s U.K. Workplace Survey 2016 finds that badly designed open plan office environments are stifling innovation in many businesses across the United Kingdom. Over 8 million U.K. employees work in open plan environments, and many of these environments are not designed to promote creativity and innovation. The study indicates that overall the average workplace currently favors those in management positions, creating a generation of “haves and have-nots.”

Once billed as the epitome of modern workplace layouts, most traditional open plan offices do not offer variety or choice, nor are they tailored to specific tasks and practices, with 70 percent of employees forced to work in the same place throughout the day. The impact of this lack of choice is that only 33 percent of respondents report feeling energized at the end of the day (66 percent feel drained due to their office environment). Employees provided with a private office — usually the reserve of those in senior positions — rated their workplace environment the highest performing, with those in management positions expressing greater job satisfaction and a sense of meaning.

Illustration of open plan office

Gensler’s 2016 Workplace Survey reveals that variety and choice in the workplace environment tend to drive creativity and job satisfaction.

“Innovators” are five times more likely to have access to a private space and favor working alone, finds Gensler. They spend less time in face-to-face collaboration and only 3.5 days of their working week in the office, compared with the other end of the spectrum who spend 86 percent of their time desk-bound. They also actively choose to spend less time in their assigned spaces by making regular use of conference rooms and open plan meeting areas for collaboration when they are in the office.

Survey respondents who scored highest for innovation achieved better productivity and effectiveness scores for all work modes — focus, collaboration, learning and socializing — and reported greater job satisfaction and a better relationship with their managers. The energy, pharmaceutical and creative industries are leading the way in workplace design by offering their employees the most choice, according to the report.

Philip Tidd, principal and head of Consulting EMEA, Gensler, said:

Employees who scored lowest on innovation are one and a half times more likely to spend all day working in the same place and use their assigned desk for all manner of activities from intense concentration to team brainstorms. This is clearly not an effective use of space. Interestingly, enclosed office space is not the enemy and moving to a simplistic open plan may not be the most effective option in today’s hyper-connected workplace. Giving employees a greater variety of places and spaces along with the autonomy and choice to work when and where suits their task will boost innovation. Businesses should also think about matching space to need rather than hierarchy to engage employees of all levels of the organisation.

Effective workplaces must support both the needs of the individual and the overall team, so businesses adopting an open plan strategy must provide a balanced environment of spaces for concentration and collaboration, advises Gensler. The firm’s four recommendations based on the results of the study are:

  • Invest in the workplace and tailor space to the most important functions of the business to make open plan work environments more effective.
  • Diversify beyond the desk by including a variety of group work spaces inside and outside the office.
  • Empower the entire organization, not just the senior leadership, to choose when and where they work.
  • Connect employees to their organization and colleagues by adopting a workplace design strategy that supports their corporate purpose and sense of meaning.

Philip Tidd continued:

A one-size-fits-all approach is a fundamental mistake when it comes to workplace design. This holds true for a company’s approach to their own offices, but also to the notion of borrowing ideas or trends from other industry sectors — you need to do what is right for your particular business and the way your employees need to work. Getting the balance right will have a noticeable impact on the productivity, creativity and innovation of employees. Unfortunately, the gulf between the haves and have-nots appears quite dramatic. The ability to innovate is affected by the physical environment, so good workplace design is actually a way of getting ahead of the competition.

Gensler’s U.K. Workplace Survey 2016 examined feedback from 1,210 employees at all job levels across 11 industries.