Are open offices a bad idea?

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Nearly 70 percent of corporate offices now have “open-plan” offices—work environments with no interior walls or cubicles, the International Management Facility Association says.

Google uses them, as do eBay, Yahoo, Goldman Sachs and American Express. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design his company’s office expansion, which will be the largest open-plan office in the world, housing 3,000 employees without interior walls.

The freewheeling open office has become a hallmark for hip, forward-thinking companies, with the goal of cultivating a more desirable, collaborative and productive work environment. However, new research suggests that open-plan offices may be having the reverse effect.

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They’re 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, the worst culprits identified were conversations, ringing phones and office machinery—all of which are augmented when no walls are present. A Brooklyn advertising executive illustrated this dilemma in a recent Washington Post article , 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 days used, less job satisfaction

The number of sick days that employees take increases with an open-plan office, for obvious reasons. Keeping workers in such close quarters increases the spread of infection, in addition to the environmental stresses such as 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 or more are likelier to take short-term sick leave than their private-office counterparts.

Proponents of open-plan offices claim that the tradeoff for the loss of privacy 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 affects open-plan office environments in a study for the Journal of Environmental Psychology. They discovered that the tradeoff of privacy was rarely worth it productivity-wise. Further, they identified noise and privacy loss as the main sources of workplace satisfaction.

Taking a balanced approach

We’re not saying 70 percent of offices have it completely wrong. Open offices aren’t bad in and of themselves, but there is a right and wrong way to run them.

Fast Company reporter Anjali Mullany recently interviewed workplace experts to learn more about how to run an open office while addressing such concerns as privacy and productivity. In the article, design consultant John Ferrigan suggests open-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 creating an easy signaling system for employees to use when they don’t want to be disturbed.

Listen to the needs of your employees

The perceived benefits of switching to an open 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 likely to miss the mark.

The best solution would be to simply listen to your employees and create an office environment that reflects the company culture.

Cord Himelstein is vice president of marketing and communications at Michael C. Fina. A version of this article was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog. 
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