Open vs. Closed

Open vs. Closed

The debate is binary.

Recently, there have been a couple of scientific studies that suggest that open office environments negatively impact job satisfaction1 and employee collaboration2. These studies were conducted by scientific professionals within their respective fields. The first finds a negative correlation between job satisfaction and office size among a population of 271 Swedish real estate agents. The second report includes two studies of 50-100 employees from separate organizations and concludes that open offices reduce the volume of face-to-face interaction, and by extension – collaboration. While each study warrants a deep reading and response from the scientific community, it should be noted that both studies were conducted using a small sample-size. It would be unscientific to extrapolate and over-generalize these findings without further analysis and debate. That said, these studies have stirred up quite a bit of conversation3 and controversy4 on the merits of the open office by interested if non-scientific third parties.

Design embraces complexity.

At BHDP, we are not in the business of evaluating the veracity of scientific studies. We are in the business of designing environments and experiences that support the objectives of our clients. We do not subscribe to a simplistic reduction of ‘open’ vs. ‘closed.’ People are more complicated than that, and human systems – more complex. In the face of this complexity, we rely on a Design Process that takes into account the goals, aspirations, and key performance metrics of our clients. We do so in an open, inclusive, and balanced manner, weighing not just the social and cultural implications of the designs we render, but also the business factors at play in design decisions. Our work is specific to our clients’ needs, and each project is tailored accordingly. Variations exist from client to client, business unit to business unit, and individual to individual. Our job is to take those variations into account and develop unique places that operate for our clients across multiple scales.

So, which is it? Neither.

The prevailing theory on what ‘works’ in workplace design is:

  • recognize that organizations have unique needs at all scales
  • engage with end users to understand and contextualize design problems
  • provide a variety of spaces that enable autonomy and choice
  • support the increasingly agile nature of individuals and teams
  • reinforce business processes and streamline communications
  • delight and inspire people by designing engaging experiences
  • enable innovation through social cohesion, collaborative competition, and individual reflection
  • consider the health, wellness, and well-being of employees, customers, and communities alike

Design is not binary. Professional strategists and designers must take into account a host of often competing and contradictory priorities. We do so on behalf of the clients we serve and the people they rely on. It’s who we are.


1. Otterbring, T., Pareigis, J., Wästlund, E., Makrygiannis, A., & Lindström, A. (in press). The relationship between office type and job satisfaction: Testing a multiple mediation model through ease of interaction and wellbeing. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health.

2. Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration373Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences

3. Stoltz, Adam. “Bring Back Cubicles?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 14 Jan. 2015,

4. Burkus, David. “Why Your Open Office Workspace Doesn’t Work.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 21 June 2016,