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Open-plan offices have been trendy for the last decade.

They’re much cheaper to rent and maintain than traditional office spaces. Plus, they’re new and different. Top companies like Facebook, Apple, and Reddit embrace the concept. That must mean it’s the perfect trend to follow, right?

Not necessarily. Numerous studies have shown open office plans not only hurt productivity and increase sick time but also fail to accomplish their primary goals. Below, we’ll talk about the main reasons why. But first, here’s what an open plan means for an office.

What Is an Open-Plan Office?

An open-plan office eliminates private offices and meeting spaces, opting instead for a large room where everybody works. Some open-plan office spaces resemble a shared living room, with people grabbing space at a table or on a couch with a laptop in hand. Others provide low desks (as opposed to cubicles) for each worker, in an arrangement not unlike something you might recognize from your high school science classes. To grasp the concept, picture the “bullpen” in “Barney Miller” or “Brooklyn 99.”

Proponents of the open-plan office say the informal setting reduces stress and makes work feel like settling in for personal projects at home. They further claim the lack of walls and personal space forces collaboration by keeping people front-and-center with each other at all times. Detractors say privacy and personal space are vital to employees’ workplace productivity and personal wellness.

Here’s what the research tells us.

7 Hard Truths About Open-Plan Offices

Most of the information we’ll discuss below was found in a 2018 study on open-plan offices by Ethan Bernstein of the Harvard Business School. It compared open- and traditional-plan offices and their performance on similar metrics over the course of a year.

1) Workers Don’t Get the Privacy They Need

Many studies, including one from the University of Technology of Malaysia, confirms that privacy is an important human need. As you may recall from high school or freshman psychology, human needs fall on a hierarchy defined by Abraham Maslow.

Under this widely accepted model, the needs at the bottom of the hierarchy must be taken care of before a person can focus effort and attention on behaviors higher up the hierarchy. For example, if you’re starving, you won’t be able to focus on matters of self-esteem.

How This Affects the Workplace

Privacy as a need is much further down the hierarchy than performance at a job. Workers at a job that requires true focus and energy will not be able to perform their jobs as well if they have no privacy.

Bernstein found that workers in an environment that offered no privacy took measures to create privacy. For example, open-plan office workers wore headphones, sat with their backs to the room, and demonstrated other behaviors that cut them off from their coworkers. In order to work on tasks higher up the hierarchy, they had to take steps to acknowledge their human need for privacy.

Since the whole point of open-plan offices is to push coworkers closer together, this simple observation calls its efficacy into serious question.

2) Formation of Information Silos

Another behavior Bernstein noticed in open-plan offices was that employees communicated far more often via instant messages, online chat, and email than on the phone or in face-to-face meetings. This may have some advantages. For instance, written, electronic communication always leaves a record. Still, it has a problematic side effect.

In the study, employees who relied on electronic communication tended to communicate with the same group of colleagues over and over. They excluded those outside their group of friends and immediate colleagues and created what media and communication expert Cass Sunstein calls information silos.

An information silo occurs when people communicate primarily or exclusively with their closest friends and others who tend to agree with their general worldview, priorities, and opinions. Sunstein’s work focuses on how this can be bad for democracy by reducing empathy for outsiders and creating a likelihood to believe potentially false information that agrees with an existing opinion.

How This Affects the Workplace

Information silos in the workplace can be damaging. In offices with a traditional layout, Bernstein noticed, communication was more formal and face-to-face. It was also more likely to include all stakeholders, rather than just the closest colleagues of the person initiating the communication. As a result, important new information, opposing viewpoints, and out-of-nowhere inspiration were more common than in open-plan spaces.

Worse, Sunstein notes that information silos create a tribal mentality, breeding unhealthy competition, an “us vs. them” attitude, and poor workplace morale. When people communicate only with those on their side, they begin to lose respect and even empathy for other groups. In politics, this results in extremism. In the office, it can ruin the company culture.

3) Organization Becomes Difficult

Open office plans mean lots of areas are in everybody’s space. When everyone shares the same space, no one takes responsibility for organization or cleanliness. That’s why common areas like break rooms are typically the messiest spots in any office. Everybody assumes it’s somebody else’s problem, and there’s strong social pressure against stepping forward and taking responsibility as that behavior is often considered bossy.

How This Affects the Workplace

This kind of mentality makes it difficult to enforce tidiness and organization, which can cost a great deal of productivity. When it’s just the breakroom, the result is usually friction over who left a Tupperware dish full of mold in the refrigerator for a week or whose job it is to clean the microwave. In an open-plan office, it can result in essential equipment going missing, workspaces that are cluttered and unusable, and serious morale problems over small details of arrangement, organization, and cleanliness.

Office organization manufacturer Brother’s imprint brand P-touch commissioned a 2010 study that discovered the annual cost of time lost just looking for misplaced items was nearly $90 billion annually in the U.S. That’s just one of several ways an open office plan can negatively impact office organization and a business’s efficiency and profitability.

Although a traditional office plan is no guarantee of an organized, fine-tuned workplace, open office plans make it much more difficult to create one.

4) Distractions Abound

Distraction kills productivity, whether you’re at home, at school, or at work. According to a study by the University of California, Irvine, it takes most people an average of around 23 minutes to refocus on a task after being interrupted.

Application of some basic math shows us that three interruptions in an hour means losing that entire hour to reduced productivity and not getting a task finished. We all knew workplace distractions were bad, but now we know just how bad they are.

How This Affects the Workplace

Communications conglomerate Poly’s massive 2019 survey on the worst workplace distractions identified the following as the top 10 most common and worst distractions at the office:

  1. Coworkers talking loudly on the phone.
  2. Coworkers conversing nearby.
  3. Phone rings and other alerts.
  4. Office celebrations.
  5. Nearby group meetings.
  6. Visiting children and family members.
  7. Colleagues eating.
  8. Table games (like foosball or ping pong).
  9. Intrusive outside noises.
  10. Pets in the office.

These distractions are exacerbated by open office plans since workers don’t have a separate area to take their distracting behavior. More than half of these distractions could, arguably, be avoided if the distraction could take place behind a wall or a closed door.

Open Plan Office

5) Stress Rises

The noise, disorder, and lack of privacy in an open office plan actively increase employees’ stress. As anybody who’s tried to work from home with a family will tell you, it’s stressful to focus when you don’t have a space to go for privacy and protection from interruptions.

How This Affects the Workplace

Stress isn’t only unpleasant. It also hurts employees’ health and your company’s bottom line. A list of common health conditions associated with stress includes sleep disorders, headaches, depression, anxiety, heart problems, and immune system problems.

This can create a downward spiral that harms productivity. The initial distractions and stress cause mild health problems, which make employees less capable of concentration and their bodies more susceptible to stress. That leads to worse stress and increasing health issues, which can cause meaningful losses for both the employee and the company.

At best, it reduces profits and morale. At worse, it can profoundly reduce the quality of life for your key employees. It can also lead to higher turnover, which hurts both the bottom line and the performance of remaining team members.

Because of this, any office plan that increases stress should be carefully reconsidered.

6) Collaboration Actually Suffers

Aside from saving money on rent by requiring fewer renovations, an open office plan’s main proposed advantage is to encourage collaboration. By eliminating walls and other dividers between team members, the structure is supposed to create an easy, open, and direct exchange of ideas and opinions between everybody in the room.

But Bernstein found the exact opposite to be true. His research found a 73% reduction in collaboration among employees in open-plan offices compared to those who had private offices, cubicles, and walls.

How This Affects the Workplace

Bernstein’s analysis showed that without traditional sources of privacy, employees enforced their own privacy to ensure they weren’t disturbed. For example, employees wearing large headphones throughout the workday were less approachable than those working casually in a cubicle or with a half-open office door.

Bernstein found workers did not take such measures only while on a tight deadline or when they needed space to temporarily focus on tasks. They fell into the habit of taking these measures as their default behavior while at work.

This suggests strongly that open-plan offices don’t even fulfill their primary design goal.

7) Morale Decreases

Proponents of open-plan offices often suggest they create a collegiate, party-like atmosphere — an ergonomics version of Casual Friday to help workers feel like they’re more at home than toiling away at a job. In theory, this would improve morale and thus productivity.

But a survey collected by Bospar PR found this, too, was the opposite of what actually happens in an open-plan office. It found that three-quarters of workers in an open-plan office hate the experience, reporting the following reasons for this view:

  • Lack of privacy (43%).
  • Overhearing too many personal conversations (34%).
  • Inability to concentrate (29%).
  • Worry about sensitive information being overheard (23%).
  • Inability to do their best work and thinking (21%).

How This Affects the Workplace

Good employers care whether or not their workforce is happy. Poor employers care about productivity and their bottom line alone. Since having three-quarters of your staff unhappy will hurt productivity, both kinds of employers should care about this factor.


New Office Design Trends

Open-plan offices were the “next big thing” for about a decade, but they’ve been fading from the spotlight for several years now as research is casting them in a questionable light. It begs the question: what will the next popular “improvement” on office plans be? Here are a few of the most promising candidates:

  • The “deskless office” with first-come, first-served workspaces, including many without an actual desk, table, or other flat places to put work tools.
  • Office plans where every desk is a standing desk or an adjustable sit-stand desk.
  • Moving to distributed workforces, with telecommuting via collaboration tools from across the world becoming the standard modality
  • Returning to cubicles or even offices with closing doors.

Final Thoughts

We’re not saying you should avoid an open-plan office if that’s really what you think is best for your team. We’re also not saying that if you currently use an open plan, you should spend the money on a remodel right away. What we are saying is this:

Given the drawbacks, if you want an open office plan, you should want it for specific reasons the open-plan serves well, and you should have a plan in place for dealing with the drawbacks mentioned above. If you do that, you’ll find this workspace arrangement can work for you.

Patrick George has worked in a number of office spaces, including open spaces and more traditional offices in finance and fintech companies in Silicon Valley.

Written By
Georgi Todorov is a digital marketer. He recently started his own blog about digital marketing DigitalNovas. His passion is to help beginners to start and grow a successful online business. He has just launched his White Link Building Service. Hit him up on Linkedin or Twitter

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