Are all open-plan offices a killer for the collaboration?

December 2021
Work environment Capgemini Netherlands
Work environment Ritchie Bros.
In the past, a table tennis table or a Friday afternoon drink could already be an attractive factor for talented people who were looking for a different kind of atmosphere at work. Today, expectations are much higher. Creating a great employee experience requires an in-depth understanding of what people need and how the workplace can best support them. A new study conducted by Harvard Business School adds to extensive research indicating that people seek workplaces that reflect their changing needs. There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to designing and furnishing workplaces.
Today, people easily switch employers. It is no longer just about the type of work, salary and status of the company. No, people are looking for a job that gives satisfaction. People ask themselves: Does the work I do make me happy? Do my employer and I have the same values? What do other people think about my work? People constantly mirror themselves and consider many factors when determining whether a job is the right one for them. This leads to a lot of job switching.

Headlines after a new Harvard study declare open-plan offices a 'killer for collaboration'. But it doesn't have to be.

The most recent research results show that as offices moved from secluded spaces to open-plan offices without fencing, direct ‘face-to-face’ collaboration decreased dramatically. Instead of talking to each other, people started using email and instant messaging much more often. The results of the survey spawned headlines denouncing open-plan offices as “collaborative killers” and “the stupidest management quirk of all time.” So what now? Should everyone go back to working in private offices?

A closer look at the study shows that the researchers tracked people as they transitioned from their assigned office cubicles to their assigned workstations in an open plan office space. In the new environment, all elements of privacy were removed. The researchers used wearable technology to observe how people interacted with each other. The new space was a monotonous attempt to bring people together. But instead of fostering collaboration, this form of open-plan offices did just the opposite. Direct physical interaction decreased by 70 percent.


“Organizations should consider ‘hybrid’ or flexible spaces and optimize workplaces for the kind of work people do there.”

In an interview after this study was published, Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein drew some conclusions from his results. He suggested that among other things, organizations should consider ‘hybrid or flexible spaces’ within the open-plan office and, he pointed out, they should optimize workplaces for the kind of work people do there.

In a report on the study, Fast Company wrote: “Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, as is common in open plan open plan design, work environments should offer several options that support the effective working of employees.” The idea that people need a diverse range of spaces to meet their changing needs throughout the workday has been something that Steelcase researchers and designers have advocated for years. It’s no secret that people often regret their open-plan offices – frustrated with a lack of spaces to choose from and of control over where they can get their work done. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

So what do people want from the place where they work? A recent Steelcase survey of office workers around the world found that while 77 percent of people have their own workspace, the vast majority — 87 percent — work in a different location for two to four hours each day. And looking further, the survey showed that 53 percent of people say they can’t find the spaces they need. More than half (51 percent) say they need to be able to escape from the same place over and over during their day, whether alone or with others.

The results are revealing. In addition to privacy and places to work together, people are also looking for informal, inspiring workplaces. They want to build deeper relationships with colleagues, and 43 percent of those surveyed think informal spaces can help build more trust. Good informal spaces offer views of nature, support informal interaction and provide access to visual and acoustic privacy.


“What is needed is a holistic approach that ensures the integration of the needs of people, place and technology”.


Clearly, people need an ecosystem of spaces that support the different types of work they do in a day: places to collaborate, concentrate, learn, socialize and refuel. By addressing all these needs, an open-plan office space can accommodate all types of work performed by people. What is needed is a holistic approach that ensures the integration of the needs of people, place and technology.

With the intensity of today’s work, leaders expect more and more from their people. In order to work and create at a consistently high level, the sustainable well-being of people must be taken into account. This requires:

  • Ergonomic support and comfort
  • Eliminate distractions so people can concentrate and collaborate undisturbed
  • Inspiration and the opportunity to refuel – make people feel better when they leave than when they arrive at work

When it comes to place, people need an ecosystem of spaces that support all ways of working: concentration, collaboration, learning, social activities and recovery. This must go with:

  • Support for a wide variety of poses and privacy options
  • Spaces where colleagues who work remotely get the experience that they can feel and behave as if they were also present in the space.
  • Spaces that help team members stay present and focused.



“By creating a workplace that brings people, place and technology together, organizations can give their employees choice and control.”


When people have a bad day with the necessary technology for their activities, they have a bad day at work. They need all kinds of devices and spaces to share information. They also want easy-to-use technology that is smart and connected so that their ideas can match it seamlessly. Considerations for technology solutions include:

  • Collecting data so that organizations can understand what kind of spaces best support their people and so those organizations adapt their workplaces accordingly
  • Give people access to data so they can quickly find their colleagues and rooms
  • Offering spaces designed in such a way that the place helps to use the technology more effectively and the technology makes the place better

By creating a workplace that brings people, place and technology together, organizations can give their employees choice and control over where and how they work – something directly related to a high level of engagement and satisfaction in the workplace. By putting people first, the open-plan office does not have to be a source of frustration. It can be a tool to help people and teams thrive.

Creating an inspiring environment for your employees


Offers choice and control

Give your employees the freedom to work wherever they want. By offering a wide range of spaces with different resources and atmospheres, they can perfectly adapt to the wishes and needs that they have at that moment.


Make it authentic

Create places where a person can and dares to be themselves completely. Light, material, informal places and natural elements are powerful influences on the behavior and communication of the brand and the culture of an organization.


Cherish your people

Also do not forget about the physical and emotional needs of a person. Good coffee and a range of healthy food indicate that you as an organization prioritize the well-being of an employee. WorkCafés and a bar give people the opportunity to meet each other in an informal way and get to know each other better. It's no secret that stronger relationships can lead to better ideas and increase synergy and creativity within a team.


Give space to the best technology

Today it is very frustrating for an employee when technology fails them. It creates frustration and distraction because the work often depends to a large extent on the technology within a company. Therefore, make sure you have good quality equipment that makes it easy to share information and ideas with each other.

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