How to make open office work for both employees and the company

There is an interesting blogpost in The New Yorker where Maria Konnikova concludes that most open office environments are a failure. I share her conclusion in general, but there are ways to overcome the disadvantages of the open office! And if you can do that, there is potential for creating organizations that are far superior from what we know of today.

Here are two references, which will give you food for thought:

  • UNBOSS (2012), outlines how organizations can achieve greater impact, higher growth and happier employees by defining a clear purpose and involving stakeholders (including employees) while applying a new concept for a knowledge-based organization, which  has open offices and transparent communications as a prominent feature.
  • Revolution at Oticon A/S – a Harvard case Study which remains one of the most studied business cases in the world. The Spaghetti organization has open offices as a prominent feature.

The Oticon’s “spaghetti” organization has been featured in thousands of books and articles including Tom Peters Liberation Management. More references can be found at

The key to making an open office work for both employees and the company are:

  1. Design the physical environment carefully, taking into account acoustics, visual factors and indoor climate.
  2. Design the office layout carefully to reflect the working styles that you want to promote, and include space for both individual and group work in both silent and less silent environments.
  3. Design the meeting facilities so that they encourage the behaviour you want to see. At Oticon the tables were removed from most meeting rooms and there were numerous spaces for informal stadn-up meetings – of course separate from working areas to avoid people being disturbed.
  4. Install a working culture where employees understand an gain ownership of the rules needed to make the open office function. My experience is that open offices will only work if employees understand WHY they work in an open office and WHY certain working styles are to be preferred.

Intelligently designed open offices are great! Open offices just for the sake of open offices are a nuisence!

Comments very welcome…

5 kommentarer til “How to make open office work for both employees and the company”

  1. Isabella Lo

    All things have their time. There’re time for reflections. Other time for stimulations. We need time for creation. And time for execution – with meeting to find out who do what. etc.

    How to develop a culture that we are aware of our own needs and respect the others’ needs. Also the awareness of how we are most “porductive” to what kinds of tasks but not go back to the same rutine for 30 years? How to be open for stimulation but not being distracted for too long? And then a space that design to support these various needs?

  2. Frank Calberg

    When I think about the concept of “no walls” mentioned on page 7 of the 1994 Oticon case, I think not least about people using social media, as they work anytime and anywhere on their mobile electronic devices, communicating via a number of different tools as they exchange knowledge / ideas / thoughts with different people across a number of different borders – including across company borders and various geographical borders. Further inputs on the topic:

    PS: It’s interesting, I think, what Ms. Inge Christoffersen is quoted for on page 17 of the case:
    “Oticon will have changed again in five years, but we are used to change processes now. I think that companies today will have to find ways to change very quickly and be willing to adapt. My advice to companies that want to know how to gain competence in making changes is: You have to abandon your usual way of thinking, forget old habits, and leave a lot of traditional thoughts behind.”

  3. Lars Kolind

    Last week I visited one of the leading suppliers of office furniture and office equipment i China. They have worked extensively on the design of tomorrows office and it struck me how many elements they had taken over from Oticon’s “Office of the Future” 23 years ago (1991): Open offices of course, but with some shielding, conversation booths, brainstorming facilities, flexible meeting facilities and more. The discussion “open office or not” is over-simplified in my view. Let us instead focus on the nature of work in the future and then design workplaces that fit.

  4. Frank Calberg

    I think you touch upon something important in writing that we should “focus on the nature of work in the future and then design workplaces that fit.” Reflecting on the changes, and the speed of changes, happening around us – including technological changes, economic changes, environmental changes, political and legal changes, as well as demographic changes and changes in people’s needs and preferences, I think we are faced with a challenge of helping each other to continuously learn / educate ourselves in adapting to these changes.

    In an interesting forum debate this morning Erik Brynjolfsson made, as I understood, the point that as technology disrupts industries, the challenge is that people at all ages continue to learn / change, i.e. acquire new skills, to take on / cope with new challenges. I would think that these changes have implications also for how we design work and living environments in cities where people around the world increasingly work / live. And by the way: As Tim Brown of IDEO mentions in this interview, everyone can help / participate in designing new / different / better ways of working / living / doing things

  5. Frank Calberg

    Some more questions / ideas on the topic:

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