Gusto Headquarters — San Francisco, California
Gusto Headquarters — San Francisco, California

The Open Office Isn't Dead (Redux)

For over a decade, there have been heated debates about the open vs. closed office. In my last blog post, I cited a recent Harvard study calling their efficacy into question, which prompted some media outlets to question whether the study foretells the end of the open office. The study served as a reminder that nuance matters, and a high-performing workplace is more than just an open plan.

Today, the debate around “open” workplaces continues, but often without the nuance required for productive debate. Our 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey surveyed 6,000 office workers across 10 industries to uncover insights into what makes an effective workplace. The biggest takeaway? It’s time for a new narrative around work and the workplace — one that reflects the realities of the needs and desires of today’s workers and the diversity of the modern workforce.

To understand what people today really want, and need, we created a series of variables to capture “degrees of openness” — then asked respondents which type of environment they currently work in, and what type of environment they consider to be ideal. As it turns out, most people work in neither “open” nor “closed” environments, but in an environment that falls somewhere in between. And, while people are asking for more privacy than they currently have, that doesn’t mean they’re asking for totally enclosed environments. Our survey found that “mostly open” environments with ample on-demand private space clearly score the highest on effectiveness (as measured by Gensler’s Workplace Performance Index) and score the highest on experience (as measured by the Gensler Experience Index). There were some slight variations in the “ideal” – women’s preferences lean slightly more toward increased privacy; Millennial and Gen Z respondents lean more toward openness.

Percent of 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey respondents who currently sit in each type of workplace environment, compared to what they say would be ideal.

Our 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey findings support this perspective. First, offering variety and choice is key for effectiveness and experience. People work in different ways depending on their job role, industry, and individual workstyle. One size does not fit all. However, there are some commonalities – people spend approximately 45 percent of their time collaborating (in-person or virtually) and 45 percent of their time working alone on average. The best workspaces provide a balanced environment that supports both collaboration and focus effectively.

Second, when it comes to determining what constitutes the best workplaces, people actually ranked collaborative values ahead of individual values: “team building and collaboration” are among the highest ranked aspects of a great workplace (43 percent) by our respondents. This finding is consistent across gender and generations.

Team building and collaboration are the highest rank of a great workplace.

In high-performing work environments, it doesn’t matter whether an office is open or closed. What matters is that the space is designed to function well, and that it aligns with employees’ needs and values. In other words, an open plan can be just as effective as a private one. It’s time to move past the open/closed debate and instead focus on what really matters — a well-designed space that supports team-building, collaboration, and individual work — providing ample variety and access to enclosed, on-demand spaces.

For more insights into how workplace design drives employee effectiveness, experience, and engagement, download Gensler’s 2019 U.S. Workplace Survey.

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Janet Pogue McLaurin
is a Principal in Gensler’s Washington, D.C., office. She co-leads the firm’s Workplace Sector and is a frequent writer and speaker on the critical issues affecting the design of high performing work environments. Contact her at .