A new study suggests that noisy, open-plan offices aren’t just a source of stress – they actually make us more territorial. So how can we maximise employee wellbeing while enjoying the benefits of collaboration? We spoke to a workplace design expert to find out.
Open-plan offices have been around for decades, rising in popularity during 1960s Germany as a more organic way to facilitate the flow of communication. For a while they were seen as the antidote to corporate silos. With everyone sharing one space, teams could collaborate more easily. Creativity could flourish. Walls between departments would, quite literally, come down.
But while open-plan offices have traditionally been seen as more socially democratic, they do have their drawbacks. The lack of privacy, the constant noise – conversations, ringing phones, keyboard tapping, background music, people eating lunch at their desk – it’s all been shown to increase stress levels and worsen moods.
New research out of the University of Queensland has even shown that open-plan offices tend to make us more territorial.
You might have noticed this yourself. Look around any open-plan corporate office. Do you see people reclaiming desk space? Erecting small physical borders between themselves and others? Turning pot plants into a green forcefield? Putting up photos? It’s a common stress response and, according to researchers, a sign of psychological withdrawal. When we feel under pressure, humans and hermit crabs have a lot in common: we like to retreat within our own boundaries. So what’s the solution?
“Ultimately, all that noise is really disruptive for you, and people around you,” says Sasha Titchkosky, CEO and Founder of Koskela. “I firmly believe that workstations are for working, and there should be spaces for you to go – both as a team and individually – to have meetings, chats, phone calls and discussions.”
Sasha says she’s noticed a workplace culture shift since COVID, too. With the rise of hybrid work, video meetings are still prevalent to accommodate a workforce spanning multiple homes and offices. “For people in the office, it’s essential to create separate spaces away from designated quiet working zones to facilitate these communications,” Sasha says. “But it’s not feasible, cost-effective or sustainable to build endless meeting rooms.”
Employers need to create spaces where people can retreat to focus or take a call without disrupting everyone around them. By enabling these spaces, it can change the way we collaborate at work, and it will ultimately encourage more people to come into the office
This is what Koskela’s Australian-made Jacob range is all about. Recently recognised in Australia’s International Good Design Awards for Excellence in Design and Innovation, the Jacob range is a collection of furniture pieces – including armchairs, sofas, phone booths, individual and group retreats, and hideaways – that are specifically designed as a hybrid office solution, with high-back panel options to allow for privacy and peace.
“The Jacob range started as a sofa,” Sasha says. “Then we added a high back. We realised that, due to layers of different materials, it had a natural acoustic property that muffled sound. From there, we thought: let’s see how far we can push this. So we developed a series of settings, from individual armchairs through to a collaboration booth where groups of four to six people could have a quiet meeting, with all their tech integrated into the ‘room’.”
With many workforces embracing hybrid working models, the Jacob booths embody ‘smart furniture’ that seamlessly connects the physical and the digital worlds with concealed cables, laptop charging ports, video conferencing tools and whiteboard panels. “We really put a lot of thought into video calls,” Sasha said, “because often remote workers are not given the same level of respect or attention in meetings. We had to make sure we had the webcams just right, so everyone could be seen and heard.”
Of course, not everyone in the office needs to hear each call or conversation, which is why the Jacob range is equipped with exceptional noise reduction of about 50%.
Inside the cocooning panels of every Jacob booth, most background noise doesn’t enter, and most meeting noise doesn’t escape. “Inside of the booth, you don't feel like everyone is listening to everything you say,” Sasha says. “That said, it’s also not silent, so you get that bit of atmosphere, ambience and energy of the office – the sense of other humans sharing a space.”
The idea of the Jacob range was to create a fully flexible solution. Something that combined the best of open-plan collaboration with the privacy of a traditional office. The modular designs mean organisations can create dedicated breakout spaces that suit them without the cost, time and rigidity of building fixed meeting rooms. The pieces can also be assembled on-site, so clients can easily move them, re-shape them, or add modules to scale up their spaces.
As an added bonus, by manufacturing onshore, Jacob has the fastest lead time in the market – two times faster, and 25% less expensive, than building a meeting room from scratch.
“I don't think everyone should come in and put on a set of noise cancelling headphones and not talk to each other,” Sasha says. “That kind of defeats the whole purpose of having an office. But employers need to create spaces where people can retreat to focus or take a call without disrupting everyone around them. By enabling these spaces, it can change the way we collaborate at work, and it will ultimately encourage more people to come into the office.”