Should the Open Plan Office, be Closed?

You’ve probably heard the saying that "people don’t leave companies, they leave managers".
When employee’s opinions and contributions aren’t valued or if their work/life balance is not respected then why should they stay? Research has found that management generally makes decisions with a distorted view of what’s going on in their organisation i. So what does this mean for the modern workplace? Is management out of touch with the issues employees face in the modern office? Well, at Where We Work we’ve been dwelling on this for some time and have finally put our fingers to the keyboard on the matter.
If you are an office worker then it is more than likely that you live out your time at work in an open-plan environment; some sources claim that up to 80% of today’s work spaces are open plan. Companies have made the move towards open-plan environments due to the cost savings that can be made on space but if you have read our blogs to date (or kept an eye on the media) then you’ll know that the costs of open-plan can far out way the savings.

Research has shown that we’re less productive in open-plan due to difficulties concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick in open-plan. Yet for many of us, it’s the noise that is the most disturbing. Professors at the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people with a completely open office floor plan, and nearly 60% of people in cubicles with low walls, are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. Only 16% of people in private offices said the same.ii Compared to their counterparts with partitioned work spaces, open office employees experience higher levels of distractions, greater stress and lower levels of motivation.iii
So what’s weird is that the people who commission open-plan spaces don’t see the connection or realise that open-plan spaces may very well be killing productivity and driving good employees away. Why? And are their reasons well-founded or deluded?
Point: People working in one large office will naturally lead to more spontaneous interactions, collaboration and creativity.
Counterpoint: How often does this actually happen? If you work in an open-plan office, try to recall the last time you spontaneously came up with an off the cuff, ground breaking idea after bumping into Lisa at a tea point. The likelihood is that this happens very rarely (or, indeed, never) and you are more likely to be interrupted to discuss Kim Kardashian’s new wig or what’s on the menu for lunch. The ability to concentrate and focus is a necessity for every employee to be productive and this is being sacrificed for the needle in the haystack moments of ‘spontaneous collaboration’.
Point: When everyone is working in the same space, people are more motivated to work because other people can see what they’re doing.
Counterpoint: This is a terrible way to judge performance. Work is what you do not where you go and a manager who values the physical location of their employees and how long they sit there does so because they have no real way to measure output. This is also likely to result in employees who are stressed out always trying to appear busy instead of getting some productive heads down work then stopping for a cup of tea and a biscuit with no anxiety. We may look busier in open-plan but we’re less efficient, take more sick days and our happiness suffers.

Point: Money is saved with open-plan offices.
Counterpoint: People are your most expensive resource within a company; you want them to be at their most productive. Putting people in an environment where they are constantly distracted will make their productivity plummet so you can wave goodbye to all those lovely cost savings you think you’re going to make. iiii
So, there’s a lot of pretty convincing arguments against open-plan spaces. Considering this, it’s hard to imagine why managers would continue to use these spaces at all. According to the Oxford Economies report, only 39% of executives believe that noise on the office floor is an issue which affects productivity of workers. This may have something to do with the fact that the majority of executives surveyed reported having their own office (62%). These people are not experiencing the everyday challenges of working in an open area and are not empathising with the frustrations that open-plan can bring. x

During our workspace utilisation surveys at Where We Work, we are seeing time and time again workers turning shared spaces, such as meeting rooms, into de facto offices as they seek out spaces to work without interruptions. It seems that it is necessary for those in charge to spend time considering the pros and cons of open-plan spaces and the impact inflicting them can have on both their workers and their bottom lines.

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