Open for discussion

Call it the big open-office rethink. Though the design is still popular, employers are starting to notice its flaws.

Christopher Chapman has strolled through his share of open offices. The Toronto-based president of Derailleur Consulting coaches firms on how to manage their software teams more effectively, and has seen how blowing open an office — removing cubicles and closed-door offices, and pooling different groups of people together in collaborative spaces — can backfire.

At one firm that massed its tech employees in one large room at communal tables, “the noise level was the most interesting thing. It increased through the day,” says Chapman. “People pulled out their Beats headphones — they were using them to dull the noise.” Ironically, following the office redesign, employees had been gifted the $300 headphones by their firm as a Christmas bonus.

Chapman says that although certain groups enjoy working in these hubs (where many are separated solely by computer monitors) the more introverted staffers, those who make private calls as part of their duties or employees who perform high-level tasks that require a lot of attention are at a disadvantage. “Some people thrive in this environment, but many can’t,” he says. “There’s a lack of privacy, a lack of focused attention. That runs counter to a sense of collaboration.”


The concept of open-office design, which peaked in the 1960s, has been picked up wholeheartedly by Canadian organizations in the past 10 years, with many new entrants, including high-profile accounting firms, in the past five.

What’s the perceived ROI? Many buy into the idea that open offices require less space (which drives down real estate costs), improve efficiencies and boost productivity, says Jennifer Veitch, an environmental psychologist and principal research officer at the National Research Council of Canada in Ottawa. “That’s the simple economic driver.”

Chantel Broten, president of Jan Kelley, an advertising and communications firm in Burlington, Ont., is a convert. The company started considering an open office when it restructured in 2012. In January 2015, it took the plunge. “The decision to move to an open space reflects the change in our business and how we work,” says Broten. Prior to the implementation of the new office design, she says employees had shown a preference for working together, abandoning the privacy of their workspaces to gather at communal tables. To meet their needs, the company had design firm Williams Craig create a space in which all staff worked together, regardless of role. “As a leader, I would never want to go back into an office. It makes me more accessible. I naturally feel more a part of the work that’s happening,” says Broten. “On the flip side, in an open-office environment, your absence is also noted.” Although employees have the autonomy to set their own hours, it’s noted if their work doesn’t get done. “This environment holds people accountable,” she says.


The lack of privacy in these spaces has been well-documented. A 2013 study by Australian researchers in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that the “satisfaction level with workspace environment was the highest for those in enclosed private offices. Distraction by noise and loss of privacy were identified as the major causes of workspace dissatisfaction in open-plan office layouts.”

Conversely, “ease of interaction” was seen as a challenge by only 10% of participants. Employees didn’t see the need to collaborate if they had to give up privacy and a quiet workplace.

Veitch says that because “most people in white-collar jobs need a fair chunk of time spent on their own or speaking on the telephone, the need for privacy is not gone.” She says that while some employees are good at “stimulus screening” — the ability to tune out other activities and noise in order to concentrate — others aren’t. So the concept that more work is getting done faster is just that, a concept. “The evidence is really not as strong as the assumption that it works,” she says.

Plus, there’s the increased absenteeism factor to consider. In a study of 2,400 employees in Denmark, researchers discovered that the more employees in a workspace, the higher the rates of absenteeism. The study found that staffers in open-plan offices with more than six employees had 62% more sick days than offices with fewer employees.

Are the open-air adopters getting the message? Experts think so. They report many organizations are stepping back from bull-pen designs, ensuring that their workspaces have places to retreat to if it all becomes too much.

At Telus’ Toronto office, a pristine tower near the city’s waterfront, there are many floor designs. While the digital team’s floor does indeed have a series of wide-open collaborative spaces with staff working on laptops at tables en masse, there are areas with moving walls to allow teams to form groups of eight to 10 employees. Closed- door rooms with phones exist for private chats, and stand-up workspaces can be booked for private time.

“We encourage our employees to work where and how they’re most productive,” says Jill Yetman, Telus’ social and media relations representative. “There’s never one size fits all,” says Geoff de Bruijn, vice-president of corporate services and sustainability for Telus in Edmonton. “We’re trying to take a thoughtful and balanced approach.” Telus execs have been taking a hard look at how previous open-workspace designs at their offices in early-adopter cities have fared before creating new office space. And although some naysayers were tough to convince when the office style launched in 2006, he’s happy with what he’s hearing more recently from employees. An added bonus: $166 million in projected real estate savings over the next 20 years.


Extremism is out and moderation is in, confirms Michelle Sigurdson, interior design principal at Dialog, an architecture, interior design, engineering and urban planning firm with offices across Canada. “A lot of firms went into opening it all up. But people are starting to pull back. We’re seeing there is a shift.”

Sigurdson says many accounting firms are more careful in their implementation of open-office designs, choosing to put their offices in the centre of the floor so natural light can filter through to folks working at desks and in collaborative spaces. She says based on her client experiences, accounting firms now have about 70% open-office and 30% closed space. “Maybe accounting isn’t as introverted as it was before,” she jokes.

Talk to Deloitte’s Ryan Brain and you certainly get the sense that the firm is taking a measured approach to how it’s managing the transformation of its offices nationally. The Toronto-based managing partner says the firm has carefully watched the successes — and setbacks — of its national office revitalization project. It is now in the midst of amalgamating a series of offices in Toronto. Though much more open in its design, this new space caters to a variety of staffing needs. While traditional office spaces had about four workspace styles, new plans have 10 times that. “Our floor plan includes 40 different workstations — to work individually or collaboratively,” he says. These include open areas, enclosed spaces, some kickstands, treadmill stations, collaborative workspaces and call rooms. “No one has a dedicated space,” says Brain, adding that in some cases, certain work areas such as meeting rooms have to be booked by employees. Despite offering a variety of work settings, Brain concedes the process hasn’t always been met with enthusiasm by employees. “We’re used to having things at our personal space,” he says. “These are all adjustments.”

Regardless, the feedback has been positive, he says, and the firm is looking forward to its big reveal later this year. “It’s one of our most significant investments,” says Brain. “We believe we have traded up.”