Packing ‘em in – today’s open plan means shrinking space

Telegraph newsroom photo by victoriapeckham on flickr

 I’ve been ranting about Creative Spaces, open plan and working-where-you-work-best for a couple of years now (examples here, here and here).

I stumbled on a piece in the Wall Street Journal today which reported that the average new workstation designed by global architecture firm HOK Group has shrunk from 64 sq ft to 48 in the last five years. 

It does make sense in these cash strapped and cautious times to try and fit more people into less space – and if you subscribe to google’s philosophy that information flows fastest amongst knowledge workers when you pack them in, the news that the average height of desk partitions has shrunk from 5ft to less than 4ft in the same period will not surprise you.

To my mind, there’s something rather depressing about seeing a room full of Dilbert style cubicles – or equally a corridor of closed office doors.  Neither really inspires its occupants to great collaboration and creativity, but the properly open plan model is imperfect too.

Right now, I’m sitting in my very open plan office without desk, wall or any other kind of dividers.  It’s a fairly quiet afternoon here, but I’m still trying to tune out four rather loud telephone conversations and two meetings within immediate earshot and if I look up from my screen I’m close enough to the co-worker opposite me to use her watch for timekeeping. 

I’ve also got a funny feeling that I’m going to be catching her cold in the not too distant future.  According to research released in January 09, the extra noise and a lack of personal space in an open plan environment leads to “shocking” effects on our physical and mental health and makes us less productive.

There must be a happy medium – but I think its some kind of complicated balancing act / trade off between structure, privacy and personal space, vs. communication, collaboration and creativity.

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