Letters to the Editor
Open Plan or Closed Offices?
The Discussion Continues
Jan Johnson's excellent article in the May 2003 issue may have missed one important middle ground point in the private office versus open plan debate that would actually integrate the work of Mike Brill and Frank Becker: the notion of group or team office design.
I worked closely with Mike Brill until his tragic death last year and became convinced that BOSTI's research findings regarding office workers' desire for more workspace enclosure are valid. Mike would have been the first person, however, to point out that more enclosure is needed for both individual and group work activities. He also said "open plan does not an open organization make," meaning that taking down all of the walls is not the way to foster open communications and teamwork in an organization.
I'm also familiar with Frank Becker's research regarding the growing need for all types of organizations to provide improved physical support for teamwork. But I don't think his findings are a recommendation for using open plan systems furniture either. And I've been convinced since conducting my own office environment research in the mid-1980s that open plan and systems furniture actually hinder teamwork, rather than support it.
To a growing number of office interior design professionals, the effective middle ground is group or team office design, with strong emphasis on the use of enclosure to surround group and/or individual work activity, as the work analysis would dictate. Of course, there are many ways to accomplish this type of design that could not be detailed in this letter, but the fundamental point is that team space design principles can integrate the great work of Mike Brill and Frank Becker.
Hank de Cillia, Principal
De Cillia Associates, Inc.
Sag Harbor, NY
Jan Johnson Responds: Mr. De Cillia is absolutely right that the workplace alone does not create desired behaviors. It can do much to support them (or undermine them), but spatial attributes are actually the last of a series of steps one should go through in designing effective workplaces.
Both Brill's and Becker's work and that of many others show a tremendous consistency in their thinking about the overall context in which one makes workplace decisions. The Brill diagram I mention in the article suggests that all Workplace Design Qualities should derive from support for Key Behaviors that insure those Success Factors, which in turn, are consistent with the organization's Business Objectives. Getting these four ideas into alignment—through the filter of a unique organizational culture—is perhaps the most critical aspect of workplace design.
So any decision about full height walls or open plan or low or high panels should be made in the context of what work practices are being supported, the behaviors that have been identified as required or desirable, and the particular culture of that organization.
Absolutely more and more organizations are discovering the power of groups or teams as a key behavior to realize their success factors. Mr. De Cillia makes a great point about the value of developing/ designing team and/or group spaces as a part of any workplace strategy, and both Brill's and Becker's advocacy of paying an appropriate level of attention to this aspect of the workplace.