Open Offices: High or Low-Efficiency?
February 19th, 2014 by Alisa Sava
Designed for effective team work, open office layout has become especially popular in tech companies and those involved in creative work. Popularized by such companies as Facebook and Google open-plan offices are believed to enhance collaboration and creativity. But, how effective is this layout? Recent studies show that open offices decrease working efficiency and, more importantly, are harmful to health.
Managers choose open-plan office design because it saves space and money. Moreover, open offices are believed to foster communication among workers. However, it turns out that sometimes too much communication is more harmful than its absence. Such factors as a lack of privacy, disruptive noise, impossibility to control your working place create additional stresses and have a negative impact on health. Being exposed to more germs, viruses and conflict-ridden situations, open-plan office workers take more sick-leaves than those who work in their own closed spaces.
Make the World a Better Place
An increase in knowledge work and the emergence of mobile technology have encouraged designers to rethink the office architecture. In the mid-20th century, Frank Lloyd Wright, a well-known American architect and designer, proposed the first project of open office design. He thought that walls were “fascists” that divided people.
Open plan design, with its space and flexibility, aimed to liberate office workers. Indeed, the further research in this field showed that people invented ideas better when they left their desks (Herman Miller), and communicated the most with those who were in a 50 meter radius (Thomas Allen). However, office managers took up the idea for open offices with less of a democratic ideology: they wanted to place as many workers as possible in a one single space.
Although open plan offices have advantages in fostering teamwork and communication, the recent analysis by Vinesh Oommen shows that working in open offices causes interpersonal conflicts, high blood pressure and increased staff turnover.
No Walls – No Focus: Open Office Distraction Reduces Productivity
Most open offices are noisy, distracting, and impossible to easily have a private talk. According to The New York Times article, the open offices’ atmosphere provokes unhappiness and lowers productivity. Being exposed to many distractions at once (computer screen, a colleague’s conversations, music, email pinging, etc.) – senses become overloaded and more work and effort is needed to achieve a result.
Siting numerous reports and studies about the open office concept, Maria Konnikova, the author of a recent article in The New Yorker pays particular attention to research on Millennials, employees born after 1980. This generation tends to favor open offices because of the friendly atmosphere and free communication. However, many of them can also suffer in open offices.
Millenials “may be ingraining a cycle of under-performance in their generation: they enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run.”
Constant Disruptive Noise Makes Efficient Work Impossible
Speech is considered to be the most disturbing type of sound, as it directly perceived and understood in our brain’s short term working memory. Permanent talks and other background noises distract attention and negatively affect working efficiency.
These constant conversations can contribute to less productivity of a listener. According to the Finland’s Institute of Occupational Health study, there has been an estimated decline of 5-10 % of working performance of cognitive tasks (reading, writing and other types of creative works), because they require high concentration and use of short-term memory.
In order to better focus on work, many are wearing headphones to help block distractions and regain some privacy in an open-plan office. Setting aside a separate room for telephone calls and brainstorm meetings could be another solution to the noise problem.
In response to these challenges, some office developers and designers have started to introduce sound masking system, including new soundproofing materials and layouts that make the working environment more peaceful. Another innovation is the so-called pink-noise system. This piece of machinery plays a continuous stream of “pink noise” that sounds like a ventilation and is ideal for covering human speech.
The Lack of Privacy and Job Performance
Psychologists believe that physical barriers are linked to a perceived sense of privacy and that this security can have a tendency to increases job performance. This can contribute to the stress some feel when they move to the open offices form a previously enclosed design. Private phone calls can be overheard and computer screens are visible to others. One way to adjust is to come earlier than others in order to have a few hours of productive power work.
The Berkeley Center for the Built Environment has conducted research, showing the high level of dissatisfaction with the level of the privacy at work:
“In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices. The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem,” comments John Goins in his interview to The New York Times.
According to the latest research, about 60% of cubicle-workers and half of those who sit in open offices complain about lack of sound privacy. Paradoxically, most conversations in the open office are superficial and don’t facilitate the working process at all. All the delicate matters are discussed using e-mail or instant messaging.
“You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations,” says Jonathan Mc Clelland, an energy consultant. “You end up getting interrupted a lot by people’s random thoughts.”
Argument for the Open Offices
The main argument for the open-plan office is that it forces workers to communicate and often triggers fruitful collaborations and ideas that possibly wouldn’t happen if people were sitting inside their four walls. The recent study demonstrates that open-plan offices improve morale. Moreover, the collective mind is able to solve the most difficult tasks.
Thus, the writer Annie Murphy Paul has conducted a study on what the distraction of open-plan offices can do: 40 office workers sitting in the noisy open office were asked to solve a set of puzzles (with no solutions). The open office workers finished with the puzzle sooner than other group that was spared the noise – the team work won.
The problem of many modern companies is that they mistakenly implement open office plans that mimic other companies, like Google and Facebook. But, every team might work differently, therefore, it is important to think first about the company’s goals and how an open office would help you achieve those goals.
In response to this challenge, office designers have started rethinking the idea of an open office layout. Creating separate spaces where workers can “disappear” for a while (the so-called fleece-lined workstations) is believed to be the next stage of open office development.
In spite of numerous complaints, the open-plan offices remains common and viable option for various companies as open offices are commodious and cheaper to rent. Furthermore, managers believe that the advantages of open-plan design outweigh the disadvantages. In a society where technology cam sometimes replace face-to-face communication, open offices may soon become the only places where people can socialize and have a genuine human conversation.
Thus, companies have to decide which office configuration meets their needs and reflects their organization’s company culture, goals and overall structure. Perhaps, the mix of closed and open office spaces can maximize flexibility and help find the balance between the need for collaboration and the desire for privacy.