Bigger isn't better: could COVID kill open-plan offices?

by Sonia Elks | @SoniaElks | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 28 April 2021 19:00 GMT

A handout picture shows office space by provider IWG in Spaces Globe Park, Marlow, Britain September 9, 2020. IWG Plc, 2021/Handout via REUTERS

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Staff sharing smaller workspaces say they work better than those in big open-plan offices, a study shows

By Sonia Elks

LONDON, April 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Colleagues sharing small workspaces say they work harder and bond better than staff who overlook banks of desks, British academics said on Wednesday, in a study that could encourage firms to re-think open-plan offices post-pandemic.

The study comes as companies look at how best to bring staff back after long periods at home, with many reluctant to commute long distances to share a cavernous workspace with countless colleagues and all the distractions team mates can hold.

"The pandemic has obviously opened up a whole range of new ideas about how we could work," said Kerstin Sailer, lead author of the study in the journal "PLOS ONE" by academics at The Bartlett School of Architecture at University College London.

"What organisations need to do if they want people to come back to the office is to make it as attractive as possible – to provide spaces that mean people really say 'This is worth the effort, the commute'."

In countries where COVID-19 cases are easing, employers are looking at bringing back workers who have often become used to greater quiet, autonomy and the ease of working from home.

Many employees hope to continue home-working or to mix home and office, according to a study in 10 countries earlier this year. 

Wednesday's study used a 2018 survey of 172 staff at the open-plan London headquarters of an unnamed technology company, analysing respondents' desk position and their view. 

Workers who overlooked a large number of colleagues said they felt more distracted and their teams had bonded less well than those confined to small spaces with fewer desks in sight.

People who sat at window desks also felt more productive and focused than those next to a wall.

The authors said the data suggested bosses who run open-plan offices could split them into smaller spaces that offer less distraction and give workers more control.

Many workplaces are already introducing layout changes such as such as buffer zones and plastic screens which are intended to reduce the risk of spreading the new coronavirus. 

"Certainly, for some industries the open plan will live and will thrive and will survive," added Sailer.

"But I think what my study suggests and what I hope would happen more in the future is that we move away from the assumption that big is better ... because my findings showed that smaller-sized open plan was preferred (by workers)."

Related stories:

Fewer desks, more coffee: How the office could change after COVID-19

The end of the open plan office? Workspaces get post-pandemic makeovers

Left vacant by COVID-19, can offices become homes to fix housing shortages? 

(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)