Workplace Planning and the Human Factor

Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA) hosted a dinner/discussion at Fonda del Sol in New York on October 4th to continue the debate on the efficacy of the open plan workplace recently challenged in the Harvard Business Review. (1) There have been many debates and articles circulating this topic, but the aim of the dinner was to bring to light what matters most when workplace planning.

Reviewing the Open Plan Office Debate

Twenty real estate and workplace executives were invited to share their experiences with open plan. We gathered to compare these with the findings revealed in the Harvard Business Review study. Despite the cross section of industries represented at the AWA dinner – from finance and insurance, to food and beverage, to advertising and media – on the “workplace planning spectrum” most of the guests fell somewhere between “open static” (predominately open plan but assigned seating) and “activity based” (ancillary work settings supplementing traditional desk seating) workplace designs. None remained in traditional (private-office intensive) mode; only one guest had moved to free address; none had yet progressed to science-based planning (incorporating intimate knowledge of user experience) though one came close.

All guests had explored data gathering on some level. Yet all debunked the study’s approach to measuring productivity. Utilizing technology to count only the number of face-to-face encounters pre and post move – without also accounting for the variety and quality of F-2-F interactions was deemed faceless and inconclusive – lacking evidence to convince the C-Suite of acting on workplace change with any convincing reason. Further, they found the concept of presenting complex algorithmic results fallacious. They did not first state the strategic goals and overall success metrics of the two companies studied. Consensus held that while space can easily be reduced to mathematical values, it is much more difficult to do so with human behaviors. The human factor is essential in office design and workplace strategy.

The Human Factor in Workplace Design

The introduction of the human factor, the conversation pivoted to “attract and retain”. Everyone agreed that the frenzy of wanting to know “what Google’s doing” as a measurement of attraction has quelled in recent years. However, the group acknowledged the presence of a Google-like entity within each of their organizations. How then, to provide something for everyone without giving everyone everything? – more on this in subsequent musings – but this led to a much more fundamental) question: What’s good about open plan?

Bringing the conversation full circle!

All agreed that – at least initially – most of their stakeholders perceive open plan to be a personal loss that achieves significant cost savings for organization. Not as a means of creating an inspiring and supportive workplace. (And let’s face it, after 15-20 years of downsizing and densification it’s a tough sell.)

But are the goals of cost savings and optimizing employee experience mutually exclusive? We think not. But as the debate persists, corporate real estate and workplace experts need to do a more credible job of demonstrating to stakeholders both intent of motive and realistic expectations for how both achieving fiscal responsibility and investing in human capital can manifest in the workplace.


Recently, AWA’s Director of Research, Karen Plum, highlighted deficiencies found in the planning process articulated in the Harvard Business Review study. We believe these factors to be essential to making this case about workplace planning. Click here to read the Open Plan Office Debate. Upcoming blogs will elaborate on essential ingredients for crafting a credible story and compelling business case for open plan.

(1) “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” Harvard Business Review, May 2018.


Written by Fran Ferrone, Senior Consultant, Advanced Workplace Associates USA

Fran Ferrone holds a BA in Speech from The Catholic University of America in Washington D.C. and a degree in Interior Design from Parsons in New York. In addition, she has experience working with senior leaders in a varitey of Fortune 500 companies in the US and abroad.

She has published numerous articles on a variety of workplace topics, including her piece on Workplace Design that featured in Forbes. Currently, Fran sits on the Strategy and Portfolio Planning Committee of CoreNet Global’s New York Chapter.