Four great ways to improve your open office

By Ashley L. Dunn, AIA, Director of Workplace, Dyer Brown

Open-plan offices are a hot topic these days, mostly in the form of experts and amateurs alike railing against their evils. While some of the criticisms are valid, open offices don’t need to be so terrible! Normally, I work in an open-plan office — full of buzz and action — and I love it. Our firm also designs offices for Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and small businesses, too. Currently we are occupying a temporary space while we renovate, so we are camped out in closed offices for a few months, and overall response has been…blah. We miss seeing our colleagues without walking down a dark corridor of closed rooms, we miss the casual conversations that happened while we worked, and we miss the culture of being all together. Through research on workplace solutions from some of our major clients, and through designing our own space in real time, we’ve discovered several key findings about what makes open-plan officing work best. Here are four takeaways: 

Ashley Dunn was one of the many amazing experts that made our 2018 Workplace Innovation Summit possible. To see a recap of the summit, check out our webpage.

1. Sunlight.

Walls block out daylight and views, and access to those things is one of the less talked about benefits of open-plan spaces. Access to natural light and views of the outdoors brings proven health benefits, both physical and psychological, and recently ranked as the #1 office perk, even above fresh food or a gym, in a survey conducted for an article in the Harvard Business Review. Being able to stand at your desk and see the outdoors or a skyline is a wonderful break – for the eyes, the knees, and the psyche.

When designing open-plan offices, make sure that every person and workspace has maximum opportunities to enjoy the sun, and ideally at least two views to the perimeter windows. Choose light or reflective finishes, glass partitions, and glass doors wherever. Does your organization have a lot of private offices on the perimeter? Try to group those together to open up stretches of window line in between, and put phone rooms, cafes, or other public spaces in locations with prime views along the windows. Worried about a sea of workstations with the feel of a call center? Organize stations into smaller clusters, and balance the need for privacy by locating higher furniture toward the interior and lower furniture near the windows. This will allow more daylight into the middle of the space. The impact on employee productivity and wellness makes it worth the effort.

2. Varied seating options.

Nothing is better for an open-plan environment than the ability to change postures, positions, and vantage points. Studies show that workplaces with more and varied seating options create the most engaged and happiest occupants. Even small moves, like putting a counter with high stools along the window, can be implemented without a large budget.

3. Small rooms for private work.

If you picture an open-plan office as one big open space, like a gymnasium filled with rows of identical desks, you’re doing it wrong. Those big, boring bullpens rarely hit the mark for any company or group (except maybe traders, the jury is still out). Instead, good open-plan offices thoughtfully combine walls and open spaces, workstations and amenity areas, to create an enticing and useful mix of workspaces as needed in the course of business. Again, variety is the spice of (work)life.

4. Tailor the workplace — and teach your people.

Work with workplace strategists and designers to tailor the open-plan workspace to specific organizational needs and mission. In this way, the workplace becomes a strategic tool that sets you above the competition and helps you recruit (and retain) the best possible talent.

As with any sophisticated work tool, however, the best organizations will train their people on how to leverage the resources — so everyone can take maximum advantage of the office’s features and flexibility. So, as you build your dream workplace, you must educate the occupants too.

Just like anything else in the world, there are good and bad examples of the open office. The good ones work to improve communication and collaboration and even boost progress. They create workplaces that people love and even boast about – something that you and your people deserve, too!

About the Author

Ashley Dunn is Director of Workplace for Dyer Brown, working extensively on both client projects and marketing initiatives. As a licensed architect who has focused her career on corporate interiors, she has completed projects ranging from 4,000 to 400,000 square feet. Dunn has also taught at the Boston Architectural College as an adjunct faculty member and she is a committee member with the Boston Society of Architects. Ms. Dunn recently presented on and has written about workplace trends for The Design Museum Foundation and Fast Company. She has been with Dyer Brown for nearly 15 years and is their youngest director in the firm’s 50-year history. Dunn graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Bachelor of Architecture degree and a minor in Business Administration.

Ashley Dunn was one of the many amazing experts that made our 2018 Workplace Innovation Summit possible. To see a recap of the summit, check out our webpage.