You Are My Density: Snow White and the Open Plan Office
Erik Lucken in Focus Work, Focus on Focus, Workplace Design

Open plan offices have brought new meaning to the saying "whistle while you work."

The contemporary workplace is apparently on a diet. Much lauded in the national press as well as industry publications, you’d be challenged to find any article about office design that doesn’t mention increased density. Eradicating private offices, tearing down cubicle walls and drastically decreasing square footage/person allotments—how low can you go seems to be the newest measure of workplace design success.

But does real estate efficiency equal workplace effectiveness? Do people really work better when they’re put closer and closer together?

I’ve long suspected that Snow White is the intended occupant for a densely populated open office space. She’s neat and clean and pretty and polite; she’s kind and has no bad habits. No one would mind sitting next to Snow White. She’d probably even tidy up your workstation when you weren’t around.

But the truth is, our office mates tend to be more like the Seven Dwarfs. Along with Grumpy and Sneezy, there’s Nosy and Noisy and Loud Talker, Nail Clipper, Smelly Sandwich Eater, Keyboard Banger, and Volume Too High iPod Listener. You get the picture. People are naturally imperfect and those imperfections are amplified when we’re boxed into too close a quarters.

There is certainly unused and unnecessary space in many offices and getting rid of it is good for a healthy bottom line. But workplace efficiency and workplace effectiveness, while not necessarily polar opposites, are also not the same thing; gains in one often come at the expense of the other.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that space needs are not just functional; just because your computer has shrunk, your monitor is thin, and your paper files have gone digital doesn’t mean you have no need for a buffer zone. Proxemics, the study of the cultural, behavioral and sociological aspects of spatial distances between individuals, has shown repeatedly that comfort zones do exist and being respectful of them is crucial for a person’s own productivity, as well as healthy relations with those around them.

The human need for space tends to be well understood in other areas of life. Cars are marketed as roomy and comfortable, homes as spacious and airy, high end grocery stores as having wider aisles, first class airline seats as having much more space per person. When was the last time a hotel ad bragged that they had smaller rooms? In most spaces, a lot of people in a small area is called congestion; in workplace design it’s called efficiency. It’s time we question that.

A lean office is desirable, but an anorexic one can be devastating. Finding the tipping point when the dense workplace becomes a hindrance to people getting their work done is the art and science of workplace design. Without great care, densely populated, open office workplaces may fall squarely under the old warning, just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Erik Lucken
Erik Lucken has played many roles in the design industry— from architecture, interiors and strategy to research, marketing and communications. For the last decade he has studied the intersection of business performance and the built environment, and now leverages his unique range of experience to help clients identify workplace design opportunities through unconventional insights into people, place, policy and process. Contact him at
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