Two More Reasons the Open vs. Closed Office Design Debate is Flawed

Brady Mick

A Royal Society study is continuing to cause disquiet among workplace design circles, with a rhetorically flawed torrent of hasty claims calling for the end of open office design. We’ve previously recapped the study and outlined many reasons why it’s not accurate to say that research shows open offices decrease collaboration.

Here’s why.

The impact of workplace design on collaboration depends on company values

It seems intuitive that the workplace should foster some sort of ease in collaboration. Employees, after all, go to an office for the very purpose of working with their teams. While the need to collaborate at work may be nearly ubiquitous, the definition of collaboration is much less clear.

In the strategic process of designing a workplace, there would be inherent clarity added to how collaboration is defined and measured. Some basic categories of collaboration include:

  1. Question and Answer: The most basic type of interaction between two people as a direct exchange of knowledge or information.
  2. How To: Another basic collaboration where collaboration involves a largely rote explanation and response to instruct on a specific process.
  3. What If: A more complicated interaction between two people that allows for creative discussion. This requires more words to be exchanged than a “how to” collaboration.
  4. What Do You Think: Another complex type of collaboration that often involves emotional transference through storytelling.
  5. Future Focus: Other increasingly complex collaborations seek to answer and discuss big questions like “what’s next,” “what matters” and “let’s imagine.”

The frequency of each type of collaboration—and the need to build an environment that supports them—is largely dependent on the type of work. Since face-to-face interaction, in this study, dropped significantly after the transition to open office, isn’t it possible that the simpler types of collaboration simply switched to technology exchanges in light of the open environment?

And why, then, should these exchanges be viewed as inherently less productive? As a matter of efficiency, it seems likely that electronic exchanges for simple collaboration is improved by technology, rather than harmed. It serves the potential to eliminate the need for physical conveyance when a simple question and answer exchange is all that is needed.

The study gave no indication of qualitative nit-picking like this assumption. Yet the study causes us to assume that truth in all forms of collaboration is a prior in the depredating measures that open is bad for collaboration.

Workplace design is rarely a choice between two opposite extremes

The idea that, because one study suggested the open office style is “bad,” we should immediately shift to the opposite extreme of a closed office is perhaps the most flawed aspect of the way this study is being disseminated across the industry.

There’s a common tendency for the mind to quickly, but inaccurately, present a problem as having only two solutions. This “false dilemma” is a logical fallacy that inaccurately ascribe only two opposite solutions to a complex problem: hot or cold, black or white, big or small, open office or closed office.

Yet in all of these scenarios one thing is clear: there’s a virtually limitless world of creative solutions that exist between two opposite extremes. In workplace design, there’s a lot more nuance between the ideas of an open or closed office.

The truth is that both binary options are undesirable, because the idea of a binary is inherently flawed. An office that is, without exception, 100% open is equally as incomplete a design that is rigidly 100% closed. The only absolute is that the right solution won’t be an absolute. The very best of workplace design is eclectic as much as it is personalized, drawing from multiple viewpoints and examples to arrive at a solution that is appropriate for the unique needs of a unique organization.


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