The tic-a-tac of keyboards and the hum of telephone conversations have come to typify the modern work experience as businesses have increasingly shifted to the open-plan office design.

What was once considered an innovative approach used by the tech startups to promote collaboration has gone mainstream as businesses aim to create spaces conducive to productive conversations.

But not everyone is a fan of this approach. For every supporter of the open-plan design, you get a detractor who bemoans the constant stream of interruptions that come with having no physical separation from co-workers.

These concerns pose the question of whether open-plan offices are worth the frustration they cause. In other words, do they work or are they just another example of fashion dictating the design?


Research by Gemma Irving, a postdoctoral research fellow in strategy at Queensland University, suggests that open-plan design can work, but not in all circumstances.

Her study, which covered a range of different professional categories, found that open-plan offices were more beneficial to some groups than to others.

Engineers, for instance, found that it made it easier for teams to work together on process improvements, while business performance teams felt that it helped them develop initiatives, such as an intranet or a contact database.

Irving says the success of the approach is contingent on workers sharing goals and adjusting their behaviour to respect the noise preferences of their colleagues.

In the positive work environment, employees saw interruptions as an opportunity to help others and valued overhearing conversations in their vicinity.

Irving says employers need to create clear rules to create this kind of environment. One example she mentions involves a team that used "do not interrupt" flags to indicate to co-workers when they didn't want to be disturbed.

These rules can be set during formal discussions or they could emerge organically over time, Irving says.

There were, however, also instances of open-plan offices not working effectively. Irving points to research published in the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research showing that open-plan offices can reduce the overall job satisfaction and well-being of employees, particularly those who require high levels of focus.


This also became apparent for Irving, as her study showed scientists had difficulty concentrating and felt that shared workspace didn't improve collaboration.

Scientists said they preferred to collaborate during set meeting times and they also expressed a fondness for using virtual technologies.

With the rise of Slack and other work-based messaging systems, the way workers communicate in the office is steadily evolving and office design will likely bend in accordance with shifting habits, preferences and fads.

As much as modern tech companies are given credit for the popularity for open-plan offices, they certainly weren't the first in history to use the approach.

As far back as the 1750s, clerical work was sometimes done in large open offices in which numerous employees crowded around desks (standing desks aren't all that new either).
Later, architect Frank Lloyd Wright experimented with open-plan design that focused on balancing the need for space and privacy with benefits of collaboration offered by the open-plan design.

In his video' Open offices are overrated, Vox correspondent Phil Edwards explains that the modern iteration of the open-plan office has jettisoned all the careful design elements of Lloyd Wright's initial vision.

"The open offices we have are overrated bullpens," Edwards says.

Suffice to say, the modern office might be in for a renovation over the next decade.