Using Feedback to Design a Collaborative Office Space

While some may love open office floor plans, the new phenomenon of desk-sharing, or hot desking, where employees sit based on their activities for the day, has re-stoked criticisms of lack of privacy, inability to focus, and, according to some research, overstimulation that decreases organizational productivity. 

A couple of years ago, researchers at the University of Sydney did one of the largest studies with workers using open office environments—nearly 43,000 respondents—and they reported two-thirds were dissatisfied. Forty percent said it was due to a lack of visual privacy; another 20% said it was thermal conditions. 

Harvard University researcher Ethan Bernstein has published several papers on open office environments, including looks at large Chinese mobile phone factories and at Fortune 500 companies in the United States. His evidence showed that open environments reduced face-to-face interaction, led to increases in email and instant messaging, and diminished productivity among workers. At a Chinese line factory he found that small increases in group-level privacy “sustainably and significantly improved line performance.” 

But the open office environment could well be here to stay, and some designers, administrators, and other professionals think they know why. One reason is that many spaces are poorly designed; they are too open and lack important attributes like designated collaboration spaces and areas dedicated for private conversation. Ashley Dunn, a workplace architect, has noted that open spaces still need some walls to create elements of privacy, and that workers rarely get the needed education about transitioning to an open office space that includes the do’s and don’ts of conducting meetings, phone conversations, and other activities. 

At Boise State University, student union associate director Elise Alford designed and facilitated a mini qualitative study with staff from university event services to gather feedback on their experiences with their open office plan. She conducted one-on-one interviews, usually lasting about 45 minutes, with each of the staff members and with their supervisor, who in this case worked outside of the open office plan. 

Alford took extensive notes or recorded the interviews (with permission), and a review and coding of results followed. The union then partnered with a design firm, Business Interiors of Idaho, to create an improved plan. In conducting the interviews, Alford sought to identify simple ways to maximize utilization of their open office plan to better match their evolving business processes and limit financial impact to the union. 

“In considering who needs collaborative, quiet, or dedicated space, it is critical to think about what your team members need from their environment and how it relates to their jobs,” Alford said. “Who do they need to be near and what resources do they need in order to be successful? What level of privacy is required for their work and can they uphold confidentiality? And how will students, or clients, or others choose to engage or not engage with staff in correlation with your design?” 

She also noted that creating equity across peer level positions is important when it comes to assigning amounts of space, who receives walls, doors, and other design elements found in a traditional office environment. Alford also emphasized that decision-makers should consult with campus experts on the Americans with Disabilities Act and safety requirements for access, ingress, and egress for staff and collaborators who will use the space on a regular basis. 

Alford also developed a list of questions, on page 12, that she used for the staff interviews and she shares them here, along with an introduction that asks the interviewee to take a moment to think about the office space and their own individual work station within that space. 

“I ask them to think about the furniture, the lighting, the temperature, colors, noise, traffic flow, to consider the overall environmental impact on their productivity, their satisfaction, communication, and their relationships with peers and clients,” she said. 

Staff Survey Template

Boise State University used the following questions to gather information from employees about its open office environment in the union. The questions are separated into seven categories: General, Proximity, Openness, Personalization and Theme, Productivity and Focus, Collaboration, and Closing.

  1. If you could choose one word to describe the open office space as a whole, what would that be? (Interviewer: Pause for an answer) Now, look at this office panorama photo. If you could choose three more words to describe the space as a whole, which would you choose? 
  2. If you could choose one word to describe your individual work station, what would it be? 
  3. In an average work week, what percentage of your time is spent doing the following: 
  • Independent tasks at your work station? 
  • Face-to-face collaboration in the office? 
  • Work outside the office? 

We all have preferences regarding our personal proximity to resources and how they impact our success at work. Let’s talk about your ideal levels of proximity to: 

  1. People. To be most successful in completing your responsibilities, who should be near your work station? 
  2. Things. To be most successful in completing your responsibilities, what should be near your work station? 
  3. Are you currently satisfied with your proximity to these human and/or physical resources? Why or why not? What could be improved? 
  4. Is there anyone or anything that you wouldn’t
    want near you? 
  1. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = a space with walls or barriers between you and colleagues; 5 = completely open with no barriers at all), how enclosed or open is your ideal work station? 
  2. Are you currently satisfied with how enclosed or open your current individual work station feels? Why or why not? What could be improved?  

Personalization and Theme Questions

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = least important; 5 = most important), how important to you is the opportunity to customize or personalize the look and feel of your individual work station? 
  2. Are you currently satisfied with how you have customized or personalized the look and feel of your individual work station? Why or why not? What could be improved? 
  3. On a scale of 1 to 5 (1 = least important, 5 = most important), how important is it to you that the overall office reflect a standardized image or theme? 
  4. Are you currently satisfied with how much the office projects a standardized image or theme? Why or why not? What could be improved? 
  1. Think of a space, any space past or present, where you are, or were, most successful at completing independent tasks. What is that space and what words would you use to describe it? 
  2. How is this space like or unlike your individual work station? 
  1. Where in the office do you currently collaborate most often with peers? 
  2. Are you currently satisfied with these collaborative spaces? Why or why not? What could be improved? 
  3. Where in the office do you currently collaborate or consult with clients or students? 
  4. Are you currently satisfied with these collaborative or consulting spaces with clients? Why or why not? What could be improved? 
  1. Is there anything about your individual work station we have not covered that you especially like or dislike? 
  2. If you could assign or reassign yourself to any existing work station in the office, which work station would you choose? 
  3. Is there anything about the physical office environment as a whole that you especially like or dislike? 
  4. Is there anything else you would like to share?


  • Steve Chaplin

    Steve Chaplin is managing editor of ACUI’s The Bulletin and manager of the ACUI College Union and Student Activities (CUSA) Evaluation Program. A former newspaper writer, editor, and manager, he has volunteered as a student mentor as a member of the National Association of Science Writers, and received awards for his writing and reporting from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education, the Kentucky Education Association, and the Kentucky Press Association.

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