Over the years, environmental psychologists have interviewed people of all ages and from across cultures about environments they consider to be the most pleasant, and discovered that we have a marked preference for a very specific type of landscape. When researchers show their subjects pictures of the rain forest, deciduous forest, coniferous forest, savanna and desert, by and large, people choose the African savanna. The savanna images usually depict short grass, trees, shrubs and views of water. There are a number of theories for this, but most experts agree this is because we are comfortable in environments that tie us back to our ancestral roots in Africa. Short grasses allow you to see animals (prey or predators) coming at you from long distances. Trees and shrubs provide shade and a resting place from the sun. Access to water is critical for drinking, bathing and hunting water animals.

Examples of “re-creating” the African savanna abound in modern times. Take the lawns surrounding most suburban houses, and you have smaller versions of a savanna-like environment: short grass highlighted with strategically placed trees and shrubs. A carefully mowed lawn and manicured shrubbery is not exactly “natural” to any of the biomes in North America and Europe, yet it seems to be our preference over other kinds of landscaping. The other strong preference we have is to be at a height looking down. We pay enormous prices for these views. It gives us a sense of security and serenity.

Back on the quiet savanna, most of our time was spent with small groups of people – primarily our clan and people we knew well. It was also remarkably quiet and distraction free most of the time. When there was a crisis it was a major crisis – think attack from saber tooth tiger – then life would quiet back down again so stress was manageable.

So why is working the open such a source of conflict today?

If you think about it, we’ve been “working in the open” successfully for about six million years. The issue is that now, our days are spent much differently than when we were hunting, gathering and scavenging as late as 10,500 years ago. This difference, between our DNA and the nature of work today, are a constant source of friction that impacts our health, wellbeing and performance. If you follow stories in the media about the problems with the open workplace, the most common issues are feeling crowded or trapped, disruption from unwanted noise, having visual distractions and/or worrying about being taken by surprise. And these feelings and concerns make a lot of sense when you consider our roots – heck, being attacked from behind by a lion or your boss can be equally unnerving (depending on your boss of course).

How can we make the open office more supportive of our DNA and our work?

Here are some strategies for transforming your open office into something that acknowledges our psychology and physiology. Keep in mind that these are general suggestions, and a workplace design solution that works for your organization should take into consideration country and company culture, the function and personality of individuals and team dynamics. There is no such thing as one size fits all… if there were, there would be no need for design or designers for that matter.

1. Build for your clan. One way of addressing the issue of feeling crowded in an open office is to create open areas that include only small groups of people – say up to 30 people versus the “cube farm” you see in Dilbert cartoons. Even with large floor plans involving larger teams, the space can be broken up into smaller “neighborhoods” where you are likely to know (and can organize yourself around) the work patterns of those people immediately around you.

2. Provide psychological restoration. When we are around people all the time, and because we are social animals, we just can’t help but be distracted by others.  In an open environment, this is almost impossible to avoid. Getting away from the group from time to time, it turns out, is crucial for learning and for clearing our brain so we can focus.  Sally Augustin, a noted environmental psychologist, refers to this as “psychological restoration.” In your open office, provide places for “refuge” that include daylight, nature sounds, plants, natural materials and minimal technology disruption. Some companies provide yoga, meditation or “health” rooms just for this purpose.

3. Expand the “home range.” Back when we were hunting and gathering, we moved around almost constantly – our “home range” (the area we travelled around in during a day) could include several square miles. William Leonard, Head of the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University in Chicago, claims that early humans walked an average 13 kilometers (8 miles) a day. It wasn’t really until just before the Industrial Revolution that we were trapped in factories all day and tethered to one spot. Being able to choose where, when and how we work, are important for feeling in control of our environment. In an open plan, it is important to provide a variety of working environments so people they don’t feel pinned down or limited to one space. Moving around during the day also benefits health and, according to several research studies including this one from Stanford, stimulates creativity – critical for any organization today.

4. Consider density. Over the years, many companies have bought into the idea of the open plan because of real estate savings. In other words, sitting in an open office means less space required per employee and lower operating costs. Though it is true that the overall amount of space needed will likely decrease somewhat by moving to an open plan (especially if you are not sitting in one today), don’t bank on cutting your space in half. This has to do with functional need, the perception of crowding and acoustics.

  • Function.  Moving to an open office can be great for increasing collaboration and benefiting from idea generation and urban friction, but even the most gregarious among us need to do some heavy thinking, take a private meeting or make a personal phone call from time to time. Open work areas require adjacent “enclosed” spaces to accommodate the regular need we all have for privacy. Open offices that work well provide multiple places for employees to sit during the day, not just one option.
  • Personal space. It varies by culture of course, but there are “personal space” boundaries in an open environment we need to respect to not feel crowded or paranoid. If we feel crowded, this makes us stressed, which impacts engagement and productivity. We all need a little breathing room.
  • Acoustics.  Acoustical issues in an open plan environment are very common, but not unique to open plan environments. People in enclosed offices complain all the time about hearing the person next to them, usually because the walls are not fully insulated and/or the walls do not “go to deck” (meet the floor above). Interestingly, cubicles with really tall panels are the least effective acoustically. Because people can’t see that they are interrupting others, they tend to talk loudly. Once you drop the wall panels between seats (or make them transparent or translucent), people naturally turn down their voices. No matter how tall the walls are, packing in people like sardines is difficult to mitigate acoustically in an open environment without sound masking and installing highly absorptive materials in the ceiling and floor.

5. Lead in the open. It is true that many leaders have confidential conversations and need to be in a private environment from time to time. It is also true that leaders need to be with their team face-to-face to build trust. This trust-building is very difficult to do virtually, or locked in an enclosed office all day. Many leaders today make themselves more accessible in an “open” setting, even though they might also use private spaces to work. It not only brings them closer to their team and the business, but it is a great way for them to model good behavior for working in an open office.