If you are working in an open office, your office layout may be causing you to be awfully unproductive and distracted, even stressed out. Open office floor plans seem to be an essential part of start-ups, and more established organisations are also catching onto this trend. But a growing volume of research and studies are showing that despite its popularity, it might be undermining the very things that it was designed to achieve.
This chart below published by Harvard Business Review, based on a study of more than 42,000 US office workers, displays the main complaints about different office layouts. The highest dissatisfaction in open offices stems from problems with privacy, temperature, and noise level.
“Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature,” said Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, researchers of the study.
Instead of improving employee satisfaction with their surroundings and work productivity, open offices have shown to cause uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation – all detrimental to productivity.
So are open offices a curse or blessing to a company? Let’s find out.
Open offices save space and reduce real estate footprint and costs because you can arrange more staff in an open layout. According to Corenet, a corporate real estate association, the average square foot per worker has dropped from 225 in 2010 to 176 in 2012 because of the boom in implementation of open offices. Also, the requirement for dedicated private offices is minimized as companies increasingly embrace remote work and team collaboration across the globe.
With everyone sitting shoulder to shoulder on benches in an open space, transparency is increased and managers and supervisors are able to watch the office easily. The number of supervisors can even be reduced with this arrangement.
An open office facilitates interaction between employees, and improves team cohesion and communication – great for brainstorming and developing ideas. Everyone is completely accessible, fostering a symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise. Also, collaboration thrives and a sense of camaraderie is nurtured where team members value the time spent socialising with each other, whom they view as ‘friends’ instead of just ‘colleagues’.
With no fixed partitions and private rooms in place, space utilisation can be maximised and the layout of the office can be rearranged with little or no expense. In addition, it is easy to decorate, clean or maintain an open office.
Not just visual privacy, but sound privacy as well. It’s hard to keep things private and confidential when everyone can see everyone and hear co-workers’ conversations. Secrecy will take some effort to be maintained and top executives may feel uncomfortable in an open office. They can’t control what others see or hear, and who sees or hears them.
Referring back to the Harvard Business Review chart, lack of sound privacy was far and away the most despised issue in the survey, with half of all partition-less workers indicating it as a frustration.
Imagine working in one giant open room with 50 to 70 other people who all have different communication styles mixing with different emotions. To the east, your colleague mutters curses whenever his laptop gives him the blue screen of death, to the west, your Head of Department is having a meeting with partners, and all the time while co-workers on the northern and southern fronts are getting zealous and aggressive with their sales calls.
In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduce cognitive performance, where office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information or even do basic arithmetic.
When DEGW, a global consultancy, surveyed thirty-eight thousand workers on the impact of work places, they found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse he or she fared.
Noise pollution could even to repercussions on health. A study by Cornell University found exposure to high levels of noise in the workplace can trigger increased levels of epinephrine, the hormone involved in the fight or flight response, leading to unnecessary levels of stress.
Also, if someone were upset, that would wash over the room and influence co-workers negatively. Situations like that are distracting at best and exasperating at worst because noise pollution could be damaging to productivity, attention spans, creative thinking, and overall satisfaction.
In an open office, you can’t adjust the lighting or air conditioning up and down to your liking, compromising your own preferences and needs for the good of the ‘majority’.
Most companies build environments where it’s too loud or too hush-hush – any culture that resides at the extreme ends are dangerous. Try instilling a culture of being quiet, where employees are encouraged to talk in private rooms or common areas, and use chat tools like Slack to communicate.
High levels of noise, interruption, and lack of privacy are pain points in open offices that can be eased by creating collaborative spaces in the office. These are diverse areas where team members can have comfortable discussions without disturbing others. Collaborative spaces can be small private conference rooms or just a comfortable corner away from the main working area and furnished with lots of beanbags, where acoustics is good and noise generated from conversations will not disrupt other processes.
In addition, consider providing small separate areas where employees can do quiet, independent work when open-area rowdiness crescendos. For instance, RED Interactive Agency has a good mix of office ‘pods’ for teams to work together on projects, along with plenty of open spaces. Glass windows in offices and conference rooms allow workers to feel like they never leave the flow of the overall office, while they can also easily shut the door on noise and find sanctuary away from the hustle and bustle.
“I think what’s been happening is there’s been such a huge focus around getting people to collaborate – collaboration has been happening more in the work environment than it used to,” says Nila Leiserowitz, regional managing principal of Gensler (global design firm). “We just need to do a reset in terms of understanding how to make both spaces effective – both the open benching system (where employees sit alongside one another at long workstations with minimal barriers), which serves a great purpose around knowledge sharing, and at the same time understanding the need for focus and where that focus needs to happen.”
“The ratio is, in addition to your primary work area, you need another area to meet and collaborate,” Leiserowitz says. “The more open you get, the more you need the ‘one-and-one’ ratio, where [you] have another place to go. It’s not just a breakout area or conference room but it can be that cafe — it can be a lot of different things.”
Many organisations are obsessed with Google or Facebook office spaces and would like to mimic their arrangements. They are popular and effective no doubt, but only work because their office layouts align with their company culture and caters to diverse staff needs.
Your team might work very differently and would need a different office plan. Think through how you would like your office culture to turn out like, and how an open office would help achieve business goals. For example, consider certain teams such as sales or customer service, which need to be on the phone throughout the day or leaving the office frequently to meet clients. You might want to place them such that distractions to the rest of the staff are minimized.
You can also get furniture or fixtures in your office that helps you customise your open office space so you don’t compromise on privacy. Vitra the furniture company does just that. They make furniture to help block out noise of an open floor plan office, including work bays (variations on a cubicle with wrap-around sides that come up to eye level to minimise distraction), alcove sofas for private meetings, and even chairs to help filter out noise pollution. Here’s a Forbes article of an interview with Nigel Scott-Williams, regional US director for Vitra, on providing solutions for open office challenges.
In addition, the research by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear also noted that the amount of space is actually the single most important issue leading to a worker’s overall satisfaction. This holds true no matter what kind of office you have – an enclosed office, a cubicle, or an open layout. Thus, take the allocation of space per employee seriously when planning your office space.
To add on, you can even consider incorporating working from home into the office culture. According to this study, workers who switch from office work to working from home see their stress levels drop by 25 per cent. In such situations, telecommuting can boost productivity and increase retention.
If you segregate private spaces in your open office for managers, this opposes the notion of having an open floor plan. An ironic and contradicting gesture, this confuses team members and prevents senior management from getting to know more about their own departments. Stay committed to the idea of having an open office by sitting everyone as ‘team clusters’, instead of planning seating arrangement based on hierarchy and experience.
Thus, the ultimate solution is to strike a balance between the collaborative nature of open offices and the privacy afforded by being able to shut noise and people out. The nature of studies opposing open offices undeniably cast doubts on the benefits of such an arrangement, but don’t sound the alarm or ditch your beanbag chairs for cubicle farms.
The best way to go about achieving work place satisfaction is to strike the right balance between worthy trade-offs with regards to spatial configuration. Recognise different work styles and have multiple zones for heads-down focused work and also for collaborative work. This way, you can be saving on space with open offices without it costing you big on productivity.
Right now at TradeGecko, we’re experiencing an unprecedented expansion in team size and are gradually running out of space in our cosy open office. But with the prospect of moving to a new space in a couple of weeks, I’m sure our office layout will improve. And we already have plans for building team forts in there.
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