I have been thinking a lot about space recently.

We created an open floor plan at Goodworks Place with furniture that can easily be reconfigured as needed.  People love it, and we are happy about the amount of use the space is getting.  We created private office space and an open conference table for Goodworks Ventures in the back of the building.  Some days we work at the conference table together.  Most of the time though, I notice that we are spending more of the day in our individual offices, heads down, being productive.

With the increase in real estate commercial rental prices here in Missoula, we recently acquired a 20,000 square-foot building to create a non-profit center, providing some stability for some of the nonprofits in our community to continue to do their good work.  The building has historically been used as a warehouse, so the floorplan right now is a blank slate.  As we are trying to ascertain use requirements and looking at other models, the questions of shared open space v/s private offices are in the foreground.  We know that a number of our companies are busting at the seams in their rental spaces and looking at longer term solutions as well.  So, what’s the best design for productivity and collaboration in the long term?

These days, over 70% of U.S. office spaces are open-concept, which was devised in Germany in the 1950s.

The idea that spontaneous collaboration results from an open floor plan took off in the U.S. within the last decade, spreading from tech startups to more established industries such as advertising, media, and architecture. By tearing down literal barriers, the thought was that creativity and productivity would skyrocket.  But it hasn’t necessarily turned out that way.

A recent article in Inc. Magazine[1] talked about the difference in programmer productivity and innovation in open and closed settings noting:

The programmers with private offices, though only 100 strong, re-designed and re-coded an entire operating system, with multiprocessing, while porting it to a previously-incompatible hardware platform. In 18 months. (!!!) Readers who know operating system design and development can now close their gaping-in-amazement mouths.

The programmers in the open plan environment, some 800 strong, developed a handful of substandard applications and ported some others to a different operating system. Mostly, though, they attended meetings. That group was really good at “collaboration.” Creating innovative software, not so much. Or rather, not at all.

The research is similarly damning.

Evidence is mixed on whether open plans actually foster collaboration, and studies have shown that open office plans decrease productivity[2] and job satisfaction[3] while increasing the number of sick days workers take.[4]  I find this markedly important in considering design parameters for a new building that will house lots of people well into the future.  I am quite sure we will have to really study the use case and make sure to bring innovative design and technology to bear.  For example, Plantronics has invented an entire system to hide some of the noise challenges associated with open space planning.  See habitat.plantronics.com.  We are at the early stages of investigating what will make an excellent building and at what costs.

It might just be cheaper to put the walls back in.

So what do you think?  What mixture of collaboration feels right for you and your company? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Author- Dawn McGee

[1] https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/apple-had-private-offices-when-insanely-innovative.html

[2] https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/9781119992592.ch6

[3] https://www.jstor.org/stable/255498?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

[4] https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/7-ways-open-plan-offices-make-workplaces-toxic.html