Learning in an Open Office Environment

Can we actually design an open office plan with learning in mind?

Wake up, world! Cubicle nation is being taken over by open office plans. At least 70 percent of all offices in America currently have an open floor plan.

The open office plan motivation for many companies certainly has been cutting real estate costs, while trying to sell the hope of greater collaboration with colleagues. Meanwhile, some offices have looked carefully at architectural design and layout to make creative use of their available space.

Conceived in the 1950s, the open office concept was initiated to facilitate communication and idea flow. Now, more than 50 years later, the verdict is questionable as to whether those initial goals are being achieved.


How will learning and training be affected by this proliferation of open office plans?

Negative feedback and research findings on the outcomes of open office plan layouts are abundant. These will be examined through the lens of potential impact on learning.

When organizational psychologist Matthew C. Davis reviewed studies of the “rise of the open plan office,” he discovered open offices affected employees’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and overall satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees reported more uncontrolled interactions with others and higher levels of stress. They also experienced lower levels of concentration and motivation.

Whether an employee is engaged in instructor-led training, online e-learning, or blended learning, an open office environment potentially could affect personal attention to a computer, mobile screen, or physical presentation if noises or visual distractions occur. Trying to concentrate on material presented and still be motivated to learn could be difficult.

Even young, multi-task-savvy Generation Y employees found certain noises distracting in open plan offices, according to psychologists Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe. But the trade-off for them was outweighed by a greater sense of camaraderie and time socializing with colleagues considered to be friends.


So how do you find harmony with the demands for open office plans and the need for learning?

Rebecca Greenfield’s article for FastCompany, “Here Is an Open Office Any Employee Would Love,” sheds some light on how harmony could happen. She shares a powerful lesson in effective open office design gathered from interviewing Brian Collins, head of New York City-based branding firm Collins. The lesson is simple: “The best work spaces are designed with workers (and the type of work they do) in mind.”

In maximizing creativity versus collegiality, the architects for Collins designed an open bullpen area where most of the staff works. Without barriers or dividers, workers see each other’s work and can help out or offer input.

To give a degree of privacy, the tables are designed so no one sits facing another person. Product managers sit in a separate area, giving them both privacy and communicating their authority.

Davis’ research found open offices foster a symbolic sense of organizational mission, and employees feel like they are part of a more laidback and innovative enterprise. Such openness philosophically supports an engaging learning environment.

To stimulate creativity when people get stuck, the Collins office decorated a library with artistic stimuli on walls and shelves, hundreds of art books, and a classic black-and-white movie playing and projected on a wall. Such an environment triggers thinking and learning outside the box.

Naturally, if you have the ability to screen out noise and visual distractions easily, an open office concept likely will be no problem for you.


Similarly, the best learning environments are designed with the learner in mind and the type of learning needs. The change for most of us will be giving permission and time to allow exploration within the workplace and reflective learning, both alone and together with others. This means learning can, and should, happen during regular workdays and not just when taking a course.

The open office concept gives employees a more flexible workplace. This provides options for different learning opportunities at a variety of locations and times. With headsets available, you could watch a specific online learning program to meet compliance or professional development needs. Setting up diverse physical locations and contexts for learning could create novel opportunities for employees to learn from. Imagine a problemsolving board where employees place a written statement of a current work problem. Colleagues post notes with questions and responses to comments from peers to address the problem.

Or a corner of the office could be used as a learning corner where presentations are made on topics meeting regular learning development needs. While specific employees could be invited in the traditional manner, it also allows those who “overhear” to be motivated to participate when something piques their interest.

David Wedaman, in his research on “Building a Learning Environment in the Workplace” at Brandeis University, suggests we may even revert to the “atelier” model of learning where everyone’s work is visible and the master circulates around giving just-in-time feedback.

The key, as Wedaman proposes, is providing different kinds of workspaces for the different types of work we do. When you need to learn, you go to your learning workplace. He also highlights that learning hinges on peers knowing what others are thinking and doing. An open office environment fosters making the thinking of team members visible through the display of their work.

It appears Stephen Covey’s famous mantra of starting with the end in mind may answer the dilemma of open office design. If we really want learning to happen on a regular, daily basis, we start with designing offices from learners’ needs in the first place. Being open-minded to learning in different ways and in different places, we can create better-designed open plan offices of the future.

Roy Saunderson is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer of Rideau’s Recognition Management Institute, a consulting and training firm specializing in helping companies “get recognition right.” Its focus is on showing leaders how to give real recognition to create positive relationships, better workplaces, and real results. For more information, contact RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit www.Rideau.com.

Roy Saunderson, MA, CRP, is author of “GIVING the Real Recognition Way” and Chief Learning Officer at Rideau Recognition Solutions. His consulting and learning skills focus on helping companies “give real recognition the right way wherever they are.” For recognition insights, visit: http://AuthenticRecognition.com. For more information, e-mail him at RoySaunderson@Rideau.com or visit www.Rideau.com.