Issue Briefs

The following is excerpted from a recent MSPB publication on the pros and cons of open office floor plans, which many federal agencies, like private sector companies, have adopted in recent years.


Organizations seeking an edge in performance or efficiency often look to changing office configurations and work spaces. For example, an organization intending to reduce its environmental footprint and rental costs and encourage a freer flow of ideas might move from individual offices, with walls between divisions (and employees and managers), to an open space.

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Does that work? Not always.

A recent Harvard Business Review article discussed how such changes might or might not work and outlines some considerations for agencies and managers.

Proximity matters. In an age of social media, texting, and video chat, one might expect communication to be near constant, regardless of proximity. However, the authors found that people who are far apart—whether in a different state or even building—are much less likely to communicate frequently, particularly when coordination and cooperation are not necessary to day-to-day work. In a study of a corporate headquarters, the authors concluded that “people on the same team were six times more likely to interact if they were on the same floor, and people on different teams were nine times more likely to interact if they were on the same floor.” For purposes of idea sharing and teamwork, therefore, proximity does matter.

Quality matters. As noted, closeness seems essential to the frequent and useful exchange of information and ideas. But neither “frequent” nor “useful” is assured. First, employees can choose not to interact—for example, using headphones or the thousand-yard stare to send a do-not-disturb message. Second, when closeness is forced, employees may increase their use of electronic communication and decrease face-to-face communication. Finally, work interactions are not all created equal. One company that sought to eliminate communication bottlenecks by co-locating different teams found that staff-to-staff interactions increased (which was intended) but that customer satisfaction decreased (which was not). It turned out that the less-frequent, more-formal communications that prevailed when the offices were separate were more effective because they enabled managers to direct inquiries to the right people.

Work is complex. Most work requires a mix of interaction and concentration. Employees who perform knowledge work may need time and space to form and refine ideas and strategies. Employees who provide direct services may need time and space to prepare for clients and members of the public—and, on occasion, to recover from performing emotional labor.2 In one study of a firm that adopted an open-office floor plan, some employees reported the uncomfortable sense of being continually “observed.” Work and interactions that involve conflict and strong emotions are probably better conducted in private than in public. In short, work has many facets, and employees will work more productively and comfortably if the workspace accommodates all those facets.

What to do? The authors do not prescribe an optimal level of openness for office space, but they do provide some suggestions to organizations to design better workspaces. These include the following:

• Be realistic. Ultimately, employees decide when and how to interact. Workspaces can facilitate interaction and collaboration, but they cannot manufacture it.

• Think about how you want individuals and teams to interact—and collect data on how they actually interact, because the results may be surprising.

• Good workspace design is an interdisciplinary exercise, requiring collaboration between those responsible for people (human resources) and those responsible for property (real estate/facilities).

• Whenever possible, experiment and evaluate. The effects of a change in workspace can be unexpected and they may only emerge over time. Testing an office configuration can repay the upfront time and cost with interest by avoiding costly errors and identifying small changes that can make a big difference in how well the workspace works.

See also, GSA: Don’t Sleep at the Office Darlin’

2020 Federal Employees Handbook