Business leaders know that every few years several new buzzwords seem to pop up on the radar of all the major industry leaders, propelling enormous shifts in corporate culture. One of the latest buzzwords has been “open office” plan. The idea of an office without walls has quickly caught on, with an estimated 70 percent of U.S. offices having no or low partitions between workers.
Before more companies jump onto the idea, however, it might be worth considering some of the serious drawbacks that employees have found to be distracting and hurting productivity.
Employees appreciate the opportunity to control small aspects of their environment. In an office, this means being able to adjust the lights and temperature as well as arrange the space for meetings. In an open office environment, this control plummets because it is impossible to get a large number of people to agree on office conditions. Someone is always going to be uncomfortable. According to the Harvard Business Review, the more control people have over their environment, from where they sit to how they arrange their seats, the more productive and satisfied they are.
Employees sitting at their desk have their coworkers constantly coming and going. Different music is coming from several different computers throughout the room. Conversations take place about several different topics. The copy machine is whirring in the back. A few people are having snacks or lunches at their desk while they work and the smell quickly wafts over.
Without office doors or even basic barriers separating coworkers and having everyone confined to a single space, this overload of senses becomes almost constant. This can hurt productivity. A Cornell University study cited in Inc found that even low-level noise that is common in these open offices can increase stress and decrease motivation: a bad combination.
Employees in an open floor plan have very little privacy. While employers might like the opportunity to easily see what’s happening on everyone’s computer, most employees dislike it. Whether it’s because they are afraid that their colleagues are silently noting the time they come into the office and leave each day or because they have trouble concentrating with someone looking over their shoulder, the lack of privacy is regularly cited as a source of distraction. Employees cited both ‘sound privacy’ as being a major concern in 2013 survey of American workers. Interestingly the Washington Post also noted that giving employees a sense of privacy helps improve job performance.
This poor sense of privacy has also had an immediate impact on the quality of communication between coworkers. Many companies have instituted this floor plan to improve collaboration, but professionals actually find themselves speaking less with their colleagues. The simple reason is that they do not want the entire office overhearing their conversation.
A study of over 2,000 Danish workers found that the more people working in a single room, the more sick days the employees took. The occupants in an open office plan had 62% more days of sickness absence compared to those in regular offices. When entire departments sit together on large tables, a single sneeze can now impact everyone on a project. It becomes significantly harder to avoid germs and regular illnesses when everyone is confined to the same space. Not only can this be frustrating to employees on a personal level, but it can also hurt the organization when larger numbers of people call out sick at the same time.
People generally appreciate having some personal space, and that preference does not change in an office environment. Employees want being able to personalize their space with pictures and organizational systems that fit their needs, but the ability to do this is significantly limited by the open-office plan. When everyone sits at a single table, there are no individual spaces.
Employees need quiet places to sit and think about their work without being distracted by their colleagues on either side of them striking up conversations. Unfortunately, the open-office plan tends to be particularly prone to interruptions. Without physical barriers between workers to signify personal space, many people feel less inhibited about asking questions of those around them. These unexpected interruptions can hurt the workflow and lead to frustration and poor work performance.
Open office floor plans have certainly become a major topic of discussion among professionals looking to improve their conversations. Before diving headfirst into this latest and greatest strategy, however, it is worth considering if any of the above drawbacks might make the new floor plan more trouble than it’s worth.
Reuben Yonatan is the founder and CEO of GetVoIP. With an extensive background in cloud communication technologies, and building industry leading internet companies, Reuben's writings blend commentary, research, and perspective on cloud computing, digital media, business/leadership strategies, and enterprise solutions. Follow Reuben on Twitter @reubenyonatan.