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Does the layout of an office affect productivity?

When it comes to employee productivity, the office layout can have a significant impact. The layout or floor plan of your office can affect everything from employee relationships to overall company culture, all of which can help or hinder productivity. 

Office design and workplace layout has always been of interest to managers and business owners because they know that productivity is linked to profits. There are thousands of blogs, articles and  videos that all attempt to explain the best way to maximise productivity. Rearranging office desks,  introducing plants (biophilla) or sound proofing break out areas are just a few possible solutions for improving productivity within the office.

The main problem when working out the best layout in relation to people’s productivity is that we have not seen many office layout vs productivity studies. The reason for this is because it is often time consuming and expensive to put in to practice. For example, imagine going to your office and working for a week, whilst being monitored, along with everyone else in your team. Then, at the weekend, an office furniture installation team rearrange all the desks, room dividers or floor standing screens. This process would be repeated 3 or 4 times over the course of a month and would be very disruptive.   

However, during our research for this blog we did find a company that took the layout vs productivity plunge! A study by Booking.com, Learn Adapt Build and CBRE Consulting all based in Amsterdam embarked on an experiment to determine the optimal office design (layout) for a technology company.

This experiment was the first randomized, controlled experiment in a real-world technology company with the aim being to find an optimal office design and layout.  

The experiment compared four different office designs:

1. Open Plan Layout

Open planned offices emphasize a communal work environment, favoring shared workspaces as opposed to segregated offices. It’s a concept that’s meant to foster better communication, culture and trust. 

The opened planned layout in this experiment was defined by the lack of desk mounted screens, room dividers or stud partitions. Bench desks for 6 people were set up with only a freestanding whiteboard in between each bench desk. A small collaborative area along with a small lounge and breakout zone were also introduced which is common in open plan offices.

 

Experiment  Open Plan Office 1A

2. Zoned open plan

Zoned open plan offices are designed to allow people to work collaboratively and to work independently on high focus tasks in private areas (zones) or quiet areas. 

The zoned open-plan layout in this experiment was less uniform than the open plan layout with each bank of desks being angled in a zig zag fashion. Acoustic pods, meeting pods and booths were also introduced at different intervals inbetween each bank of 6 - person desks. Plants and planters were also used to ‘zone’ each team and area.

Experiment Zoned Open Plan Office 1A 

 

3. Activity based working (ABW)

Activity based working is a work style that allows employees to choose from a variety of workplace settings according to the nature of the work that they are doing combined with a workplace experience that empowers them to use those spaces throughout the day. 

The Activity based layout in this experiment was an open-plan design where desks were not officially assigned to a specific employee and included activity-centered zones. Other spaces were provided such as small, 1-person rooms with desks and screens (known as ‘focus rooms’), acoustic phone booths and a variety of collaboration tables and spaces of different sizes and levels of privacy.

The idea of this layout is that employees will be more productive when they have the right spaces for the tasks that they need to accomplish. This layout offers more choice and gives autonomy to the employee making them feel valued. 

Experiment Zoned Open Plan Office 1B

 

4. Team offices 

The team office design was the closest to the traditional design of the cubicle, with each cubicle large enough to sit 4 or 6 people.  Each cubicle was made up of U shaped free standing screens with the lower section in fabric and upper section acrylic. Each space was defined by the configuration of the screens and planters for the 4-person bench desks. Hanging acoustic panels were also introduced and situated above each team to help soften the acoustics and to function as a visual indicator (through fabric colour) to define the teams.

Experiment Team  Plan Office 1A

What were the results?

The results suggested that the zoned open plan and team offices performed well compared to open plan and activity based office designs. 

The Open Plan Layout 

The open plan office design was rated more poorly by employees and had higher levels of unwanted noise. Once employees were no longer required to work within the open plan office part of the experiment, they spent more time at their original non-experimental desks.

    Bad 

Zoned Open Plan Layout 

The zoned open plan significantly improved employee satisfaction, enjoyment and workflow. The reason for this could be down to the reduction of visual and acoustic distractions which lead to overall increased perseverance and productivity.

       Excellent 

Participants reported 17% higher productivity than those achieved within the open plan layout.

The Activity Based Layout (ABW)

Activity based working is popular with employers because companies can save valuable floor space which in turn saves costs and the need for rows and rows of bench style office desks. Despite the financial benefits of this approach, activity based layouts and designs have been shown to decrease comfort, privacy, productivity and can contribute to emotional exhaustion. However, some findings suggested that these pitfalls could be avoided if the employees were included in the process of the design.

   Productivity Very Bad

Surprisingly participants reported 14% lower productivity than the open plan layout. 

Team offices 

The team office, like the zoned open plan layout, improved employee satisfaction, enjoyment and flow. The reason for this could be down to the reduction of visual and acoustic distractions which lead to overall increased perseverance and productivity.     

  Good

Participants reported 10% higher productivity increase compared to the open plan office. 

Options are best

We believe the best scenario is an office environment where people have options. 

Employees who spend all day in a private office might enjoy a little time in a open space area, a break room, shared desk or coffee room where they may hear more about what’s going on in the office or even to enjoy interacting with colleagues. 

The open plan layout may be beneficial if it allows for activity based work and team work all at the same time. It’s important to establish how each individual and each team carry out tasks and what they need from their workspace to ensure maximum productivity can be achieved. 

In summary, we believe that people are people first and employees second. Allow them or enable them to break up the monotony of being in the same workspace continuously. Being able to work (or relax) in a difference spot with even a slight change of scenery can foster creativity, employee camaraderie, morale, overall satisfaction and improved productivity.  

Posted by: Ben Hartley

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