Open Office Plans: The Advantages, Disadvantages, and Research

Open Office Plans: The Advantages, Disadvantages, and ResearchOpen-office floorplans, those gleaming, spacious workspaces emblematic of Silicon Valley productivity and flat organizational hierarchies are no longer a radical, avant garde approach to structuring office spaces, but rather the norm. According to the International Facilities Management Association, an overwhelming 70% of offices across America have adopted this office setup. The reasons behind this shift were, for the most part, well intentioned. Some of the reasoning includes:

Better Exchange of Ideas

By getting people out of their offices and bumping into one another more often, open offices naturally generate more conversations. Through these conversations, ideas and knowledge sharing occur more regularly, which can benefit the organization.

Ease of Collaboration

Collaborating in an open space is also arguably easier. There’s less formality involved when all you have to do is mosey up to someone’s shared desk, versus going from office to office — especially when more than two people are involved.

Removal of Hierarchy

Hierarchy and siloing of organizations is one of the side effects of having dedicated offices. Employees might think twice before walking down a long hallway to potentially interrupt their boss with a question or idea, whereas this might happen more naturally in an open office space. Michael Bloomberg reportedly switched over New York’s city hall to an open office floor plan for this very reason.

Productivity, Transparency & Fairness

In an open office plan, you’re less able to spend your day watching cat videos on YouTube as you’d quickly draw the unwanted attention of your co-workers. The lack of privacy creates a subtle but distinctive pressure to always be working, especially since everyone can see what you’re doing — this is true for both managers and their subordinates. By having your work habits on open display, it arguably creates a more fairness because you can’t get away with a poor work ethic for long.

Time to Jump on the Open Office Bandwagon? Not so fast…

While open office plans were well intentioned, research has shown there’s a downside to this setup. Moreover, while CEOs tout the benefits of open offices to their employees, you can’t forget that they’re also much cheaper to implement than standard office setups and more accommodating to rapid growth — meaning, there’s an economic incentive behind open offices as well.

Not so productive

While open offices were originally adopted with the intention of increasing productivity, this is often not actually what happens as found in this study. Noise has been tied to lowered cognitive ability and it can reduce one’s ability to do even basic math. Moreover, employees in an open floor plan have no control over the noise they experience. If office music is playing, they can’t always turn it off if they need to get a report finished, or do some more complicated work tasks. In my last open office space I’d often resort to gigantic headphones to achieve a sense of quietude.

Ease of collaboration wasn’t really an issue

In the same study linked to above, it was found that only ten percent of employees surveyed felt there was any difficulty collaborating in a traditional office environment. Moreover, the ease of chatting it up about non-work related items can actually get in the way of collaborating on work-specific tasks.

Increased stress and anxiety

Another study found that just three hours of exposure to open office noise raised employee’s stress and anxiety levels measurably — the participants epinephrine levels were elevated at the end of the sessions. The aftereffects of this exposure were lowered motivation and, curiously, subjects were less likely to adjust their own posture when exposed to the noise versus quiet, leading to long-term musculoskeletal concerns. In a nutshell, that office cacophony is making you slouchy.

The importance of privacy

Privacy is another undervalued casualty of open office plans. Studies have shown a correlation between privacy and job satisfaction, and physical and psychological privacy are closely interlinked. Control is another aspect of this. Your private space is one where you have control over noises, light, and the temperature, all things that affect your sense of well-being, and thusly, your happiness. Moreover, privacy actually allows for more creativity, where someone is more likely to achieve a state of flow. Interruption — so often associated with open offices — is a creativity killer for many people. Also, a lot of work is best done without someone looking over your shoulder, even your boss. This is especially true with creative work that may require many variations and false starts, and, frankly, just sitting around and thinking. Not something that “looks good” in a buzzing open office.

Sharing sickness

Open offices are not a great way to contain disease. Not only do you hear all the sneezing of your co-workers, you’re also sharing the air with them. If you think this is a stretch, then here is a study that proves it. In fact, in this study it was determined that employees working in an open office plan are 62% more likely to take sick leave than those in single offices.

A Customized Hybrid Approach is Probably Best

While open offices certainly have their benefits, it’s obvious that they have their drawbacks as well. The truth of the matter is that we need to be more strategic about designing our office spaces, and come up with a hybridized approach.

An ideal office would have elements that both promote collaboration and make managers accessible, but that also respect people’s need for privacy and control. Your company’s accountants probably don’t need to overhear your sales people making their calls, but creating a common area between two departments might be a nice alternative. Likewise, you might have single offices available for employees who need to concentrate on a particular project or who might simply need some place quiet to think. Instead of eschewing headphones you might embrace them as a visual indicator that someone is trying to concentrate.

Designate rooms for meetings so that not all your employees have to overhear things that aren’t relevant to them, but are a distraction nonetheless. And finally, consider your worker’s personalities. While some people love the hustle and bustle of an open office, others find them over-stimulating and unpleasant. Working to accommodate both types of people with options and alternatives will help ensure you get their best work, and in turn, make sure that they are happy working for your organization.

Doug Ramsay

Doug handles the marketing and web presence for Adventure Associates. If he's not geeking-out with the latest, greatest web marketing tools, then you'll find him swirling and sipping his way through wine country.

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