In 2018, the London-based employee experience think tank Leesman published a 62-page report assessing 971 workplaces to identify the characteristics of a productive environment. In a new report published last fall, Leesman expanded upon its 2018 research, sharing the results of its largest-ever post-occupancy study to answer the follow-up question,"Do new workplaces work?" To do so, Leesman measured satisfaction based on factors from clearance between workstations and temperature control to Wi-Fi connectivity and the availability of refreshments.

In reviewing responses from 84,158 employees from 533 workplaces from 92 countries, the think tank came to a surprising conclusion: Open plan offices do not all negatively impact employee productivity. Moreover, Leesman also found that the increased prevalence of flexible or unassigned workstations has not reduced employee satisfaction as much as the media reports. Below, Leesman development director Peggie Rothe discusses the report's findings and how employers can make open plans work.

Peggie Rothe
David Levenson Peggie Rothe

ARCHITECT: Before we jump into the findings, can you explain how you measure what makes a good workplace?
Peggie Rothe: It’s all about employee experience. Organizations are increasingly understanding that employee experience is crucial for an organization to be successful, and the workplace plays a big role in that.

If organizational culture is toxic, even the nicest physical environment is not going to save that. But the infrastructure still has a big impact on how you experience the organization. I don’t think that you can measure experience other than by asking people. By definition, experience is the perception of reality at that point in time.

For offices, this comes down to designing with the employees’ needs in mind, providing solutions for both collaboration and individual focused work. If the open environment is where there’s buzz, then you also need areas for peace and quiet. If you just have one massive open environment and nowhere else to go, it’s not going to work.

The report focuses on the success of new workplaces, some of which have an activity-based design. What does that mean?
An activity-based workplace is a workplace where there are different types of spaces and settings for different types of activities. The idea is that you don’t do different activities in the best possible way at one single workstation. Instead, one setting might support you best if you’re collaborating, another setting is better if you’re talking on the phone, a third space is better if you’re doing individual focus work.

It’s essentially the idea of bringing what we do at home into the office. Our homes are activity based—the kitchen, living room, bathroom, dining area, bedroom, and so forth are all designed for a specific purpose.

From a design perspective, it is a matter of having a range of different settings and then giving employees the power to choose the setting that supports what they're doing in the best possible way.

Leesman Index

What were the motivations in undertaking this study?
We were interested in identifying what proportion of new or refurbished workplaces succeed, what proportion are mediocre, and what proportion fail. We’ve all heard the stat that gets quoted that 70% of organizational change programs fail, and we wanted to look at that and see if this number also applies to workplace changes.

What were the most surprising results from the study?
I didn’t know what to expect in terms of exactly what proportion of post-occupancy evaluations would be positive or negative. What we found was that more than 40% of the spaces actually got outstanding scores, 19% got a score that we would classify as a fail, and then the remaining 40% were in the middle.

Interestingly, there are just as many organizations who opt for an assigned-desking strategy as there are organizations that are doing unassigned strategies. I expected to see that basically whether you succeed or not is not dependent on whether it is an assigned or an assigned strategy. Both can succeed, both can fail.

Leesman Index

Open plan offices have gotten a bad reputation in the media. Why do you think this is?
Open plans come in many shapes and forms, and they can be really poor if the functionality is not right. I also think it’s because good news doesn’t sell as well as bad news. There are definitely good open environments out there, but they just don’t get the same amount of attention that the poor ones get.

Are there specific amenities that make a good workplace, according to the data?
In the best workplaces, there’s often a variety of different types of settings; for example, workstations, quiet rooms or spaces, collaboration areas. I also see organizations offering telephone booths. Telephone conversations are sometimes closely connected to people being able to do their individual focus work because if you put [people] who want to focus and people who need to speak on the phone in the same space, it’s not going to work. Otherwise, I would say generally we see variety in what’s coming up, it’s really about having the areas for focused work and areas for collaboration.

We're also seeing different types of quiet areas, including ones to freshen yourself or even have a nap—these are amenities that we’ve seen in some of the workplaces that have received really good scores. They offer an oasis for the employees that need a moment to mentally refresh. But it's important to note that the culture needs to be there as well: You can design the most amazing napping areas, but if people then feel that going there and taking a nap is slacking, then no one is going use it. So a company needs to have the right culture for these amenities as well.

This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. For Leesman's complete report, visit