Open plan offices and an idea whose time has come at last

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By Ian Ellison

Edition 3 – June 2014 Pages 27-30

Tags: workplace design • productivity • teamwork

At 3pm on 18 November 2013, Oliver Burkeman, prolific Guardian columnist and former Foreign Press Association Young Journalist of the Year, published a blog entitled “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell”[1].

The post, liberally peppered with cross-references to other damning evidence, was based on a Harvard Business Review report [2] summarising a new paper by Kim and de Dear (2013), two researchers from the Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney, Australia. Their peer-reviewed paper, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, reanalysed post-occupancy evaluation data from the University of California, Berkeley, numbering almost 43,000 individual responses from over 300 buildings.

Kim and de Dear concluded that the claimed communication benefits of open-plan workspaces were compromised in a number of ways, a premise that has been evidenced time and again. By 3:05pm the first response to Burkeman’s blog was posted. By 1:33pm on 21 November, 257 comments had followed. The overwhelming majority were viscerally negative, condemning open-plan workspaces. Many said they spoke from personal experience.

Open-plan offices, in various forms, have been around since before the industrial revolution. Burkeman’s treatment probably doesn’t surprise any of us. We have witnessed and debated this topic so many times it sometimes feels like Groundhog Day; ‘open-plan’ touches a raw nerve in a far broader debate. For me, it has almost becoming an emotive distraction. But at the core of this issue lies the basis of what we do. We all contribute to the facilities management (FM) and corporate real estate (CRE) industry and profession responsible for producing working environments on behalf of organisations and their users. We claim a wealth of expertise to address organisational workspace challenges.

Depending on organisational desire (and perhaps size of bank account), through workspace redesign we can variously address resource-focused economy and efficiency, outcome-focused effectiveness [3], expression [4] and even environmental contribution [5], whatever these may indeed contextually prove to be.

Changing space and changing culture

For some, our calling card is ‘change your space, change your culture’. And yet, despite expansive empirical and theoretical consideration, workspace opinions remain divided. The efficacy of given workspace solutions remains moot, contested through a range of ambivalent academic, practical and media perspectives. What is fascinating is the pervasive reoccurrence of the same fundamental human concerns about the workspace.

These typically, but not exhaustively, include concerns about privacy and confidentiality versus interaction and communication, concentration versus distraction, open versus closed spatial arrangements, and the interrelationship between workspace and status, irrespective of specific profession (Price & Fortune, 2008). For any doubt regarding their perennial occurrence, Port (1995) documents remarkably similar issues, within context, in the mid-19th century British civil service of imperial London! [6]

Often it doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence or justification we have for the ‘right’ organisational solutions; they just don’t land well with the people they affect. Moreover, those commissioning new spatial solutions, whilst potentially even condemning their existing facilities, may still ‘resist’ our wisdom

Everyone’s an expert when it comes to workspace, right? Sound familiar? Well actually, maybe in one absolutely fundamental respect they are: because everyone is indeed a user, a consumer of the organisational environments provided for them, and all that they afford during the lived, day-to-day experience, for better or for worse.

I regard this situation like Giddens, who back in 1979 observed, “no amount of accumulated data will determine which of two competing theories will be accepted or rejected”(Blaikie, 1993, p.70). Socially constructed, value-laden beliefs play a significant role in this perpetual irresolution.This suggests that as a profession, we need to be aware of far more than perhaps our currently favoured rational, utilitarian, cause-and-effect perspectives when it comes to workplace design. Paradoxically, do we have any awareness of just how much we don’t know?

If I am sure of anything, I am sure of this: our working environment matters. I have witnessed its importance to the mundane, everyday lived-experience, and when proposed changes challenge what people currently may have. It matters to us as users; it matters to the consultant industry that has developed to provide and manage it; it matters to organisations.

It even matters enough for growing mainstream media attention including Channel 4 documentaries and BBC Radio 4 and World Service documentaries. The UK launch of Nikil Saval’s book ‘Cubed:a secret history of the workplace’, a self-declared homage to C.Wright Mills’ iconoclastic 1951 critical sociological study ‘White Collar: The American Middle Classes’, coincides with the 2014 IFMA Workplace Strategy Summit and is reviewed in the Scope section of this issue. There is an interesting parallel to consider. Saval’s perspective, like other skeptics in and around our field, reminds us to step back and appreciate the broader, often historical influences which impact upon our current endeavours, whether we are aware of them or not:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”

(Santayana, 1905, The Life of Reason)

Form follows….what, exactly?

The deceptively pervasive architectural dictum concerning form and function has evolved over time. The necessity of pre-industrial ‘function follows form’ became inevitably, ‘function follows precedent’.

The modernist architects of the early 19th century challenged precedent with ‘form follows function’, yet in a CRE capitalist ideology, ‘form follows finance’ became dominant (Saval, 2014). We are, arguably, now able to reach beyond all of these notions in a post-modern context where ‘form follows…’ well, what exactly – anything we like? Because here lies another paradox; we have the agency to change whatever we want… except perhaps everything we have constructed around ourselves that now limits us:

“The structural properties of social systems are both the medium and outcome of the practices they recursively organize” (Giddens, 1984, p.25)

To wit: form, function, precedent and finance continue to constrain and challenge our ongoing efforts to move our workplaces beyond their inherent mediocrity. If only we could not only recognise this fact, but also what we might do about it.

The FM industry is generally accepted to be in the region of 40 years old. There are some enduring pioneers at the Summit, whose various books sit on many of our shelves. Becker, Duffy, Marmot, Laing, Pullen and so on should afford a veritable cornucopia of knowledge and experience. And yet, according to Elsbach and Pratt):

“In 1981, Franklin Becker … noted, “The way the physical setting is created in organizations has barely been tapped as a tangible organizational resource”. Over 25 years later, almost the same statement could be made” (Elsbach & Pratt, 2007, p. 217)

So why, despite all this ‘expertise’, are we in this situation? Elsbach and Pratt have organisational behaviour and psychology interests in common with our industry, and their comprehensive analysis serves as a timely reminder that what workspace designs really affect aren’t simply collective organisational cultures, but specific, unique, particular people, with all the diversity, complexity and often chaos they bring.

In this context, how can any given design solution be anything other than a series of ‘trade-offs’ between competing functional, symbolic and aesthetic preferences and requirements? Which, incidentally, is why open-plan is such a distraction!

The recent announcement from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the British Institute of Facilities Management (BIFM) that they will be working together to, in the words of BIFM’s CEO Gareth Tancred “share their thinking and work together to bridge the gap between people and place as we aim to add to the next installment of the workplace’s evolution” [7] might be welcome and exciting, but in some ways it inadvertently also challenges our collective efficacy to date. We can turn to one of FM’s many definitions to spot our hallowed holy grail, the intersection of people, process and place. It’s always been there. But maybe now though we are finally starting to recognize and mobilise our agency to actually do something about it:

“Ultimately, the practice of FM is concerned with the delivery of the enabling workplace environment – the optimum functional space that supports the business processes and human resources … as an enabler in the first instance” (Then, 1999, p. 469)

It might be the facilities manager’s role to manage space. But perhaps it is also our job to protect place too, and for the very customers, the users, we claim to serve: “undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (Tuan, 1977, p.6). To paraphrase Tuan, place is security, space is freedom (Price & Beard, 2013). I am concerned that what we think we know about workspace is dangerously incomplete. I am doubly concerned that those who claim to know are driving myopic solutions, because we focus on physical space per se, and not what it, nor we, symbolise – within, through and around it; not how we are emplaced within it and bring it to life.

“Social beings are things as definitely as physical things are social”

(George Herbert Mead, 1934)

Organisational workspaces are both socio-spatial catalysts and reflections; they represent organisations symbolically. As Cairns (2002, p.818) puts it: “the physical and social environments contain one another, frame one another and influence the development of one another – but they are not as one.”

If we can embrace this notion, we might be in a more capable position to be able to reimagine not just our workspaces, but also our workplaces, with human value and choice at their core, ideologically, symbolically, and spatially. Of course this humane focus is not a new message:

Herman Miller claim “human-centered problem-solving” has been their hallmark since 1930 when Gilbert Rohde, their first design director, declared, “The most important thing in the room is not the furniture – it’s the people.” [8] So what continues to go wrong? Go and speak to anyone who knows the history of Herman Miller and Robert Propst – ironically remembered as ‘the father of the cubicle’. Given ‘form follows finance’ we can frustratingly begin to understand the scale of the challenge:

“The Action Office [of the 1960s] was supposed to be invisible and embellished with identity and communication artifacts and whatever you needed to create individuation. We tried to escape the idea of being stylish, which is gone in five years. We wanted this to be the vehicle to carry other expressions of identity” (Propst, 1998) [9].

To conclude, I believe that we can create workplaces that celebrate diversity and choice, spaces that we will actively seek to be in when we need to, spaces that inspired, even envious others will desire to experience and share. But we will not just need to be bold, pragmatic, optimistic and imaginative if we are to challenge the way things have always been done. We will also need to be cunning and savvy about how we intend to strategise and manoeuver within an institutionalized organizational system structured to resist our innovations.

The world turns, and turns

The world has turned. If we care, as we so readily claim to do, about all facets of a sustainable future, we need to develop the agency to be able to do something about it. Our efforts need to become a collaborative ‘Gestalt’; more than the sum of our existing knowledge and experience. So will the 2014 IFMA Workplace Strategy Summit be remembered as a critical moment in this ongoing endeavour? I sincerely hope so. 2014 feels like a year of opportunity. It feels like things are falling into alignment, and people are starting to look up enquiringly beyond the confines of our insular industry. Let’s work hard to make the most of it. Ephemeral opportunities like this don’t happen often.

“The first revolution is when you change your mind about how you look at things, and see there might be another way to look at it that you have not been shown. What you see later on is the results of that…”

(Gil Scott-Heron, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’, live performance, 1982) W&P


  1. (Last accessed: 18 May 2014).
  2. (Last accessed: 18 May 2014)
  3. After Akhlaghi (1996); see bibliography.
  4. After Duffy/DEGW via Marmot, MBA seminar, Sheffield Hallam University, 2012, unpublished.
  5. After Marmot, MBA seminar, Sheffield Hallam University, 2012, unpublished
  6. I am indebted to Alexi Marmot for making me aware of this fascinating historical piece of the jigsaw.
  7. (Last accessed: 25 May 2014).
  8. (Last accessed: 25 May 2014).
  9. Quotation from a November 1998 Metropolis Magazine Feature ‘The man behind the cubicle’, now no longer available: (Last accessed: 14 October 2012).

About the Authors

Ian Ellison

Ian EllisonMBA in FM, BSc(Hons), CBIFM, FHEA] is Senior Lecturer in FM; Undergraduate Course Leader Sheffield Hallam University. He has a master’s degree in Facilities Management, and is a senior lecturer and the undergraduate FM course leader at Sheffield Hallam University. He is also actively involved with the BIFM workplace special interest group.Current doctoral research interests include workspace, its relationship with people and place, and why there still seem to be so few examples of genuinely inspiring, valued and successful workplaces, despite a wealth of claimed expertise.


t @ianellison


  • Akhlaghi, F. (1996). Ensuring value for money in FM contract services. Facilities, 14 (1/2), 26-33.
  • Blaikie, N. (1993). Approaches to Social Enquiry (1st Edition ed.). Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Cairns, G. (2008). Advocating an ambivalent approach to theorizing the built environment. Building Research and Information, 36 (3), 280-289.
  • Elsbach, K., & Pratt, M. (2007). Chapter 4: The Physical Environment in Organizations. The Academy of Management Annals, 1 (1), 181-224.
  • Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26.
  • Port, M. H. (1995). Imperial London: civil government building in London 1851-1915. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Price, I., & Beard, C. (2013). The extended narrotype: adaptation and stasis in spatial evolution. EURAM Conference, 26-28 June 2013, Istanbul.
  • Price, I., & Fortune, J. (2008). Open plan and academe: pre- and post-hoc conversations. In D. Then, & E. Finch (Eds.), Proceedings of the W070 conference: healthy and creative facilities. CIB publication (315) (pp. 613-620). CIB.
  • Saval, N. (2014). Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace. New York: Random House LLC.
  • Then, D. S.-S. (1999). An integrated resource management view of facilities management. Facilities, 17 (12/13), 462-469.


…We have witnessed and debated this topic so many times it sometimes feels like Groundhog Day; ‘open-plan’ touches a raw nerve in a far broader debate.

…here lies the paradox; we have the agency to change whatever we want… except perhaps everything we have constructed around ourselves that now limits us.

…It might be the facilities manager’s role to manage space. But perhaps it is also our job to protect place too, and for the very customers, the users, we claim to serve.


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