Best desk locations in an open-plan office grant visual control over the environment
Open-plan office workers with more visual control over their environment rated their focus, productivity, and teamwork more highly, according to a study published April 28, 2021 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Kerstin Sailer from The Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, UK, and colleagues.
With an end to the COVID-19 pandemic in sight, the world has begun to reopen, including offices. This study focuses on the effect an open office layout has on staff perceptions of teamwork, focused work, and productivity, along with a detailed analysis of spatial qualities of specific desk locations—and may suggest ways that office spaces, too, can "build back better."
In spring 2018, Sailer and colleagues studied four floors of the London headquarters of a large international technology company. They collected a staff survey on satisfaction with workspaces and meeting rooms, along with specific information on the office seating positions of all participants and a marked floor plan.
The authors received 172 responses to their survey (a 16 percent response rate). Staff with higher numbers of desks in their field of vision were less likely to rate their workplace environment favorably, possibly due to distractions and difficulty talking to coworkers without disturbing others. Staff whose desks faced away from the main area of the room with many coworkers out of sight behind them also rated the environment less favorably, potentially due to a lack of control over their environment. The authors also found both these sets of workers tended to negatively rate aspects of teamwork like sharing information with others, team identity, and cohesion . In contrast, workers who faced the room and had relatively few desks in their line of sight rated themselves more focused and productive, and their teams as better bonded. Workers at window desks felt more productive and focused than those sitting beside walls. In other words, staff with more visual control over their environment were up to 40 times more likely to rate productivity, focus, teamwork, and team bonding favorably.
Since this study's insights have only been derived from a single case, repeat studies are necessary to see whether these results are generalizable. However, the implication that the characteristics of a particular desk location can play a large role in staff satisfaction and productivity in open plan offices seems significant as many numbers of office workers prepare to return to the workplace later this year. The authors suggest that designing smaller and more intimate areas within a large open-plan office design may be advisable, as well as giving workers visual control by facing as many desks forward as possible.
The authors say: "Staff in smaller open-plan spaces and those facing the room reported higher satisfaction with team cohesion, sharing information with colleagues, concentration and working productively." Kerstin Sailer adds, "Our findings raise important questions regarding the current popular practice in workplace design of providing large open-plan offices for technology companies."