Many studies, including ones conducted by the manufacturers that sell office furniture used for open offices, have shown that open floor plans hurt productivity and dampen employee morale. And, contrary to what was first thought, they are not the panacea for promoting collaboration.
The pitfalls of open office spaces have been known for some time
A 1999 case study showed that the creation of an open office environment for everyone in a company, from research and development, to marketing, finance and human resources, led to strong employee and managerial backlash.[i] A more varied approach designed to fit how each unique department worked would have been better.
In 2011, Organizational Psychologist, Matthew Davis, reviewed more than a hundred office environment studies. He learned the following:
“Though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees in open offices experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and innovation.”[ii]
The October, 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review featured “21st Century Workspaces,” with a series of articles, including, “Balancing the ‘We’ and ‘Me’: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude.” Written by Steelcase researchers Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn and Melanie Redman, the article notes that the open office, “Can foster collaboration, promote learning, and nurture a strong culture. It’s the right idea; unfortunately, it’s often poorly executed – even as a means of supporting collaboration.”[iii] Their research found that the open office environment leaves employees susceptible to many audible and visual distractions and that work is often too varied for the open environment to be effective.
A Wall Street Journal article last week came to the same conclusion and cited examples of companies that were trying to address the lack of privacy, constant interruptions, drop in productivity, and rise in sick days. A Swedish study of more than 1,800 workers found that open office space workers were twice as likely to take sick days as workers in traditional offices. The authors hypothesize the cause to be more exposure to germs and increased stress. Workers complained about the inability to focus, and they were less content with their work environment.[iv]
Companies are beginning to make changes
Some companies, such as Silicon Valley Bank in Santa Clara, CA are backing away from the open office design by adding more private spaces, such as “phone booths” to make private calls, and “huddle rooms” for small meetings. Another company, HealthcareSource H R Inc. in Woburn MA, got rid of its high wall cubicles, which gave the illusion of privacy but actually increased noise level. Instead, they put plate glass walled cabanas in the middle of each floor to provide quiet spaces for employees, while maintaining the airy feel of the brightly colored space.[v]
A few years ago, I was part of a team that implemented a flexible work place, which used a modified open office design. The design included low cubicle walls and offered employees plenty of huddle rooms for private conversations and impromptu small meetings. We also doubled the traditional conference room space, provided “war rooms” for innovation teams, and upgraded the video equipment. Employees liked the new design. Moreover, we allowed 25% of the workforce to work from home three to four days a week, if their jobs were conducted mostly via computer and did not require a lot of face-to-face time. This flexible work environment improved productivity, employee morale, and significantly reduced costs.
If you would like to learn more about this project and the advantages of implementing a flexible work place in your company, please click here. If you want an in-depth case study on how we planned and implemented this award winning flexible workplace design, order my free white paper, Form Follows Function.
Are you considering changes to your open office design? Join the discussion.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults on talent management, leadership development and coaching, innovation, and other strategic initiatives. Please e-mail Victor at firstname.lastname@example.org or visitwww.victorhrconsultant.com. For innovation visit www.InnovationOne.US.
[i] Jacqueline Vischer (May 1999) “Will This Open Space Work?” Harvard Business Review.
[ii] Maria Konnikova (January 7, 2014) “The Open Office Trap,” The New Yorker.
[iii] Christine Congdon, Donna Flynn, and Melanie Redman. (October 2014) “Balance ‘We’ and ‘Me’: The Best Collaborative Spaces Also Support Solitude,” Harvard Business Review.
[iv] Alina Dizik, (Oct. 3, 2016), “Open Offices Lose Some of Their Openness,” The Wall Street Journal.