Workspace Design: It’s Not How Big, But How Well You Use It


Open-plan offices are the controversy of the month. “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell” exclaims the Guardian. “Cubicles are the worse, ” cries out the Harvard Business Review. Coworking spaces look similar to open-plan offices so how far does this controversy extend?

The bubbling resentment toward new open-plan corporate workspaces finally has something to rest its hat on. Research from the University of Sydney Centre for Built Environment has concluded that private enclosed offices perform better than open-plan offices against satisfaction metrics (no surprise there, who doesn’t want their own office, right?). More importantly, contrary to new workplace design theory it found that the negative impacts of open-plan (lack of privacy, heightened noise) have a greater impact on workspace satisfaction than any of the supposed benefits.

Open-plan offices have long been promoted for the potential improved communication between workers and improved worker satisfaction. In coworking spaces there is a great deal of open-plan areas, which facilitate and encourage connectivity between members. Coworking spaces are renowned for the variety of opportunities that results from connections between members. Recent research from the Rotterdam School of Management determined that 1 in 8 coworkers found a new job or temporary assignment, and 1 in 4 coworkers started professional partnerships or collaborations with other members. There is definitely an upside to a coworking community being able to connect with one another in an open-plan environment. So what about these suppose detriments of an open-plan setting?

In the workspace satisfaction study, individuals were asked to score their workspace on a variety of metrics (temperature, furnishings) and provide an overall satisfaction score with their workspace. In shared work environments the factors causing the greatest amount of dissatisfaction were “sound privacy” and “visual privacy“.

Interestingly, the study found that the “amount of space” not only received poor scores across all office types, it was also the greatest determinant to overall workspace satisfaction. With the exception of private offices, over 15% of the respondents were dissatisfied with the amount of space available to them. Regardless of workspace type, respondents consistently scored their workspace significantly higher if they were satisfied with the amount of space provided.

From a coworking perspective, these results are surprising. Coworkers are the highest-density worker population (higher than any open-plan corporate workspace), and yet they value their workspace so much so that they actually pay to work.  They feel it contributes to their productivity and creates a positive work experience.  There are also minimal complaints about privacy. Based on the study results, coworkers should be some of the unsatisfied with their workspace and yet they tend to be some of the happiest.

Workers citing noise levels, lack of privacy and insufficient space in open-place offices does not mean the solution is a return to private offices or bigger workspaces.  We know from coworking that it’s not the size that matters, but how well it’s used.  So what can we learn from coworking?


Insufficient visual or sound privacy are not direct outcomes of an open-plan office but a poorly designed space.  There’s a big difference between creating an open-plan office and a user-oriented collaborative workspace.   Open-plan offices often just have open workstations and standardised meeting rooms.  Inherently people do not have space for individual visual or sound privacy, which understandably becomes frustrating.  A truly collaborative workspace caters working and personal needs of users.

The most successful work style transitions also ensure a sufficient level of culture change readiness and management is undertaken through co-creation (solicitation and incorporation of user ideas).  If time is taken to consult with the users to understand their current and future use and need states, and invite them to participate actively in the changes it’s likely to be much more engaging and successful.  In an optimal situation, at least six months should be dedicated to understanding user needs and prototyping physical workplace designs for user feedback.

Diverse Spaces for Diverse Occasions

We all know that there are some conversations that need private settings.  There are also times when you don’t want everyone in the room to know what you’re looking at.  But privacy is not required 24/7.

Coworking spaces work because of the variety of spaces that are available to our members; you can find the right space to do virtually any activity you want.  Want to do solo focused work? There’s a quiet pod.  Have an informal catch-up? Meet in the café style setting with plenty of natural light and fresh air.  Want to make a private phone call? Try one of the Buzzihoods.  Open-plan offices that are simply cubicles without walls do not provide a sufficient diversity of spaces.

To assess satisfaction with the amount of space, respondents were asked, “How satisfied are you with the amount of space available for individual work and storage?” Unfortunately this purely focused on size of the space rather than the diversity of usage opportunities.  Since this is a self-reported survey, it’s quite possible when individuals deemed that their space was insufficient the limited diversity of space was a contributing factor.

These studies highlight the need for a mindful approach to workspace design.  It’s easy to say we need to return to the days of private offices, but it continues to fall short of providing an optimal workspace.  Workspace design is no different to home design; its not the size but the utility of the space that is key.  A mansion doesn’t make a great home environment if you don’t have separate places to sleep, eat and play. Similarly, gone are the days when people are after space – now it’s about an experience that encompasses space, community and culture.  It’s not how big, but how well you use it.

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