The Open Office Backlash

April 3, 2015

According to the International Management Facility Association, nearly 70 percent of corporate offices now have so-called “open-plan” offices, or work environments with no walls or cubicles. Google uses them, as does eBay, Yahoo, Goldman Sachs, and American Express. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design his company’s new office expansion, which when completed will be the largest open-plan office in the world, housing 3,000 employees with no walls. The freewheeling open office has become a hallmark of sorts for hip, forward-thinking companies, professing to create a more desirable, collaborative, and productive work environment. However, new research suggests that open-plan offices may be having the reverse effect.


Less Productive


For many employees, open-plan offices significantly increase the amount of cross-talk, interruptions and distractions over the course of a day. When Hong Kong Polytechnic University studied which workplace noises had the most detrimental effect on productivity, they identified conversations, ringing phones, and office machinery as the worst culprits—all noises that are enhanced when no walls are present. A Brooklyn advertising executive illustrated this dilemma in a recent Washington Post op/ed, detailing her transition to an open office layout:


“All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined [sic] to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue.”


Another study published in the Journal of Environment and Behavior followed a sample group of 21 employees as they transitioned from a traditional office to a new open-plan layout, measuring key performance indicators throughout. Indeed, the workers reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment, and less productivity, even after a six-month adjustment period.


More Sick


The amount of sick days employees take increases with an open-plan office, for reasons that should be obvious. Keeping workers in such close quarters with each other increases the spread of infection, in addition to the environmental stresses like noise that can be detrimental to physical health. The Journal of Ergonomics published a study showing that employees who work in open office groups of four employees and above are more likely to take short-term sick leave than their private-office counterparts.


Private Time


Proponents of open-plan offices claim that the trade-off for the loss of privacy it brings is enhanced employee interaction – in theory, employees should be freer to discuss ideas and work together with no walls to separate them. However, a sense of privacy at work has been shown to strongly correlate with job satisfaction and performance. Researchers Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear have explored how the lack of privacy impacts open-plan office environments in a study for the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and discovered that the trade-off of privacy was rarely if ever worth it, productivity-wise. Further, they identified noise and privacy loss as the main sources of workplace satisfaction.


Balanced Approach


We’re not saying that 70 percent of offices have got it completely wrong. Open-plan offices aren’t bad in and of themselves, but there is always a right way and a wrong way to run them. Fast Company Reporter Anjali Mullany recently interviewed workplace experts to learn more about how to run an open-plan office while still addressing concerns like privacy and productivity. In the piece, design consultant John Ferrigan suggests open-plan office designs take more into account the habits and personalities of the people working in it:


“In my experience, what needs to happen is a layered approach, creating different settings or zones, because it’s never one-size-fits-all,” says Ferrigan. “There need to be spaces for those people who really need quiet to focus, whether they just find it easier to work or they’re more of an introvert. We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable.”


Mullany’s article goes on to suggest that companies establish privacy and noise-free zones for workers within the open office layout, experiment with seating arrangements of teams for maximum compatibility, as well as create an easy signaling system for employees to use with colleagues when they don’t wish to be disturbed.


Open for Business


The perceived benefits of switching to an open-plan office – improved communication, better collaboration, and a more diverse environment – are very real, but as the saying goes, no matter where you go there you are. If you’re not actively involving employees in decisions about their workspace you’re bound to miss the mark. The best solution, it would seem, would be to simply listen to the needs of your employees and create an office environment that truly reflects the company culture.

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