Why Open Plan Offices are Bad News For Employees

Employees in such spaces spend less time in face-to-face interactions, making teams less collaborative and productive

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Over the years, companies have believed open offices are an architectural gift that helps save money on real estate, and spurs interaction among employees, thereby promoting more collaboration on tasks, job satisfaction, productivity and social support. Research has shown that in the past two decades, the time employees spend on "collaborative activities" has increased by almost 50 per cent. Hence, such design has been welcomed in offices across the world.

But here's an open secret: Open offices just do not work.

Recent research shows that such offices result in 73 per cent less face-to-face interaction, and a 67 per cent increase in email interaction. Why? All the distracting noise of an open office causes employees to tune out with their headphones; and they resort to sending their queries to colleagues via email instead of standing in front of them owing to lack of privacy.

The results

"Consistent with the fundamental human desire for privacy and prior evidence that privacy may increase productivity, when office architecture makes everyone more observable or "transparent', it can dampen F2F (face to face) interaction, as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy; for example, by choosing a different channel through which to communicate.

"Rather than have an F2F interaction in front of a large audience of peers, an employee might look around, see that a particular person is at his or her desk, and send an email," explain Harvard professors Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban in their study, "The impact of the "open' workspace on human collaboration". It was published in July last year in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.

A more recent study by Dorota Węziak-Białowolska, Zhao Dong, and Eileen McNeely, also Harvard researchers, which focussed on 456 employees in 20 regional office locations of an architectural firm in the US, found that they themselves didn't like working in such a space. The study, which was published in November in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, found that working in the open-plan office limits the experience of privacy and intensifies the perception of intrusion among employees, in this case, architects and designers. Additionally, employees' perception of lack of privacy and high office density negatively affect job satisfaction, work engagement, and internal work relation as well as increases the number of limited ability days.

Previous evidence

Earlier studies have shown that open offices actually make employees miserable. A study by office furniture company Steelcase, which included 10,000 workers, found that 95 per cent of the respondents said that working privately was important to them, but only 41 percent said they could do so. It's understandable since almost 90 minutes in a day are lost because of distraction, as shown by an international research done by Ipsos and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase. And let's not forget that open offices increase the risk of more people catching cold, fever and other such illnesses.

"Open-plan office was developed from a perspective of cost accounting for the environmental impact, better space efficiencies for sustainability, and the desire of companies to encourage social collisions and collaborative teams to accelerate innovation and enhance job performance. The impact of this design on humans is not only less certain in terms of the costs related to the absenteeism, presenteeism, attraction, and retention of talent, but also health and productivity," conclude the researchers of the Frontiers in Psychology study.