Broken Spaces – Broken People

Published by tim-isherwood on

Do you work in an open plan office? How do you find this? Are you productive and happy or does this make you stressed and unable to work productively?

Personally, I find open plan offices badly designed and not conducive to good work. When in this type of office environment I take the Jason Bourne approach – don’t sit with your back to the door, don’t sit with your back to any of the others in the room and leave as soon as possible.

There is an article in the Nov/Dec 19 issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled: The Truth About Open Spaces. This is not about green fields and forests but about open plan offices. The subtitle of the article is: There are reasons why they don’t produce the desired interaction.

The problem, that is dealt with in the article, is that open plan offices are not creating the interaction between people that the designers expected, if there is interaction, it is often in unproductive ways.

This does not come as a surprise to me and maybe not to you.

The solution to the problem (according to the authors) is to use technology to track peoples movements, to collect the data on who and how they are interacting. Companies “can then conduct rigorous experiments to learn how to achieve the types of exchanges they want”.


What does surprise me, is that the “solution” takes no account of the negative mental impact of working within an open plan office space.

I am reminded of a three part series of programmes by Tom Dyckhoff, an Architectural Historian, screened on Channel 4 in 2011. The series talks about the negative impacts our building design has on our mental health. This relates to our residentail building, our working spaces and our leisure spaces such as shopping centres and stadiums.

During the second of the three programmes, which is about work space, an experiment is conducted on Tom whilst he tries to write a column for a newspaper. He is wired up to an EEG cap which will measure the electrical activity of his brain in reaction to the comings and goings in the open plan office in which he is trying to work.

You can watch the programme on YouTube HERE
and the piece of Tom working in the office is from 2:40 to 5:50 minutes.

In essence, what the programme shows is that, no matter how much technology is thrown at us, a badly designed open plan office is not going to allow us to work properly.

Tom describes these places as “Broken Spaces” and I am not surprised, that as more and more of us work in open plan offices, our wellbeing declines, our productivity falls and absenteeism becomes ever more prevalent.

This is a problem that can be sorted but it is sad that no matter how many people know of the negative elements of open plan offices, architects and designers do very little to correct the problem. This cannot be sorted while we remain addicted to producing sexy building exteriors whilst producing rubbish insides.

We are producing what are broken spaces which will eventually produce broken people.

1 Comment

Isabella · 21st November 2019 at 12:48 am

Nnedi Okorafor is an auto-buy author for me — I love her work. This is a TED talk she did regarding her personal experiences when she was a college student and athlete and a surgery for scoliosis left her paralyzed. During the grueling experience of learning how to walk again and how to adapt to the reality of continuing issues with proprioception, she began to write as a way to cope — and out of her broken place, she worked hard and developed an incredible ability to tell riveting stories.

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