Open-plan offices, characterised by a lack of interior walls and a great number of workers, are largely popular with 70 % of workers at the start of the millennium occupying some form of open-plan office. Open-plan offices are cost-effective (can accommodate more employees) and are thought to aid in intra-team communication. However, research shows that open-plan offices can reduce productivity and impair memory of workers. Here is what you need to know.
Negative Effects of Open-plan Offices
An open plan office can have a few workers or hundreds of workers in one place, all doing different things; from having loud phone conversations to the irritating desk-tapping of a thinking workmate, the resulting noise can be unbearable at times. In fact, in a past study, when researchers (Sutton and Rafaeli 1989) questioned office workers about their work surrounding, noise ranked as the greatest issue of dissatisfaction among participants.
Furthermore, a 2007 experiment exposed participants to background office noise while asking them to recall specific digits, the result was that their level of recall was significantly reduced by the background noise. Workers in open-plan offices are constantly exposed to such noise on a daily basis, and this can take a large toll on the quality of tasks, especially those that require heavy concentration.
Reduced Environmental Satisfaction
Open plan offices have been found to reduce the satisfaction of employees with their workspace; the clutter, congestion, arrangement and disorganised look, all play a part in frustrating workers. “I have a unique keyboard and trackball (special computer mouse) to keep my hands healthy, I literally can’t share office space without carrying loads of stuff around. Plus people like “owning” space. Somewhere to keep nice tea and a toy duck,” said Mathew Walton, a Twitter user, expressing his displeasure with open plan offices in a Twitter discussion.
A 2007 study on the environmental satisfaction of employees in open-plan offices found, that the degree of satisfaction of office workers with their immediate workspace; affected the amount of satisfaction they got from their jobs. If their environment displeased them, it further trickled down to their commitment to the organisation and eventually to increased employee turnover. This means that the more dissatisfied a worker is with their environment, the more likely it is for them to leave a company.
Have you ever tried concentrating on important work, in a place where people were talking about a topic that interests you? A heated discussion about that football match you missed last night, a workmate narrating her ordeal escaping a bunch of criminals on her way home; just a little nudge, a phrase, or a laugh is enough to throw off your concentration. Well, imagine that happening every single day in an office.
A 2010 survey by researcher professor David Craig done on 38,000 workers in an open-plan office setting, found that the biggest loss of productive time came from interruptions from colleagues. Interruptions are ever present but the close proximity of people in an open-plan office makes it worse. The human brain has a limited capacity to process information thus when an individual is working in the midst of interruptions, the brain can be overloaded. Attention to tasks will quickly diminish, environmental satisfaction will reduce, some will even withdraw from the workplace etc.
Additionally, because employees in open-plan offices can begin feeling a loss in the ability to control the amount of contact they can have with others, in addition to feeling that anything they say or do is exposed (a phenomenon known as psychological privacy); studies have found that the amount of confidential discussions and work-related feedback reduces as a result. This goes against one of the fundamental goals of open-plan offices, which is to promote feedback and better friendship between employees.
Some companies have started the shift away from open-plan offices to give workers more privacy, “private offices with doors that close prevent programmers from interruptions allowing them to concentrate on code without being forced to stop and listen to every interesting conversation in the room,” says Joel Spolsky, Co-founder Q & A site Stack Overflow and Software Company FogCreek. It does not mean however that everyone should abandon their open-plan and go into closed-door offices, there are hybrid systems to accommodate the needs of everyone.
You can still have open offices but include extra private and enclosed rooms/offices for those times when people just need to be alone (a place to retreat). An alternative would be to keep the open-plan, but separate the sitting desks with cardboard into cubicles; which will give each employee their own private territory, while still having their co-workers an arms-length away. Additionally, provide conference rooms where teams can take their heated discussions to avoid distracting others.
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