The Issues With Open Plan Office Designs

Category: Office Design

office design, office space

Open plan office design is still incredibly popular; according to an estimate from the research group Emerald Insight, some 70% of offices conform to an open plan style. Advocates point out the numerous advantages, but there are some key problems with open offices that make them much less beneficial than they seem.

The Open Office Theory

The idea of the open office came about in the 1950s, but didn't really take off until the 1990s, when it became the next big thing in office branding and design. The new design philosophy was about stimulating creativity, improving organisation, and facilitating communication and collaboration by removing physical barriers and creating shared spaces. It was also about decentralising office hierarchy by creating egalitarian spaces where managers and leaders were more accessible and approachable. And finally, the ideal open office, a big, bright, and airy space with plenty of windows and natural light, would improve workers' moods and help them enjoy their work environments more.

The Reality of the Open Office

Even as the open office became the design ideal that innovators and imitators aspired to, evidence was already amassing that the open office might not be as effective as originally thought. In 1997, a Canadian oil and gas study commissioned a psychological survey to monitor reactions to a transition from a traditional office to an open environment. The study assessed employee job satisfaction, performance, stress levels, and interpersonal relationships before and after the transition. For every single parameter recorded, employees reported negative reactions to the open office space—they found the space disruptive and stressful, they felt resentful and dissatisfied—and productivity was greatly reduced.

Since then, dozens of studies have been undertaken on the subject, and there seems to be a fairly clear consensus: that the supposed benefits are more symbolic than anything else. One extensive review of more than one hundred studies found that while the open plan office gives employees a sense of belonging to a relaxed and innovative organisation, their attention spans, productivity, creativity, and job satisfaction are all suffering. Employees working in open plan offices experience more stress, have less motivation, and are less able to concentrate, as compared to peers working in standard offices.

There are several factors that are thought to be contributing to the negative effects of the open plan office:

  • Privacy increases job performance, but removing physical barriers like walls and doors reduces privacy. Even old-style cubicles may be more effective in this regard.
  • The more employees there are working in a single space, the more sick leave employees take. The difference is apparent even in two-person offices, with a 50% increase in the number of sick days over workers in private offices.
  • The worst offender seems to be noise, which is linked to reduced cognitive performance, impaired memory, and even impairment in basic math skills. Employees subjected to open-office levels of noise have higher levels of stress hormones, are less creative, and are less motivated.

Interestingly, people who multi-task have reported feeling better able to work in open environments—but there are downsides to this, too: multi-taskers are more affected by interruptions and less adept at switching to new tasks. Whether it's the result of multi-tasking or open office design, the general message is clear: over-stimulation reduces job performance and satisfaction—and it may very well be time to rethink the open office.

Posted 15th November, 2016

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