Open office spaces have been trending over the last few years. Many of us even work in one. A few years ago, the appeal of the open plan seemed simple: it would allow workers to collaborate and interact with one another easily, increasing socialization and promoting a close-knit team. And, as a bonus for those of us in real estate, these spaces are visually attractive, versatile, and cost-effective. But in practice, the benefits just aren’t as great as they may have seemed a few years ago.
New evidence shows that it may be time to stop building open offices—or at least approach them with caution. A July 2018 study has concluded that not only does open office architecture fail to produce open interaction, it can actually reduce organizational productivity, mental focus, and positive social interaction.
We encourage you to keep these negative impacts in mind when considering the architecture of your next commercial property.
An open office doesn’t necessarily promote interaction.
It seems like open office spaces would encourage people to collaborate and solve problems collectively. However, research shows the opposite. In fact, in this study, people in open offices often chose to send an email rather than approach a co-worker. Positive workplace interaction can be hampered: “Adopting open offices, therefore, appears to have the perverse outcome of reducing rather than increasing productive interaction.” This seems to refute one of the major “benefits” of an open-plan workplace. This clever study was based on two Fortune 500 companies who were each adopting an open office plan. They tracked 150 people for three weeks prior to the office space redesign and for three weeks after. Shockingly, face-to-face interactions decreased by a whopping 70%, while email usage increased substantially as well. Clearly, this was not the intended outcome.
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Everyone can hear everything, and there are visual distractions, too.
When workers can hear everything that coworkers are saying or doing, it can be distracting and hard to focus. It makes people feel more exposed because it’s impossible to have a private conversation on the phone or in person. Noises like coughing or sneezing, your coworker’s nervous foot-tapping habit, and peoples’ phones vibrating on their desks—all can be heard by everyone. Also, people will be moving around in the line of sight of coworkers.
We have all been in a coffee shop reading a paper or something on our computer, and out of the corner of our eye, someone comes into view. We immediately look up and see what is going on. It may only be for an instant, but it is a distraction. For some, the people traffic and noise can be very distracting which in turn leads to lost productivity. Every time someone’s attention is taken away from their screen or thoughts, they lose seconds to minutes to refocus their thought process.
Belongings may not be safe.
Most of us would like to think we can trust our office mates, but that isn’t always the case. If someone gets up to get coffee or go to the restroom, they may come back to a missing laptop. Or, just as bad, they could come back to missing personal items. Even if nobody ever actually steals anything, an employee’s worry and uncertainty can cause mental distress. This takes away from their work performance and their job satisfaction.
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Lack of privacy makes some workers anxious.
Open-plan spaces make everyone more visible. A 3-year-long UK study showed that people changed their dress and behavior when working in an open office. People, particularly women, felt anxious about being watched and felt like they had to stifle emotions and dress more carefully. A stressed and anxious person can’t work at their best. Stressed-out workers can’t devote all their energy and mental space to their job because they’re consumed with worry. Essentially, employees feel the draining need to be “on” all the time. Further, because of the constant visibility, employees are focused on who is the first in the morning and who has left early all promoting an unhealthy work-life balance.
If you’re in commercial real estate, you should think about this study when considering space for your clients. Or, if you’re going to build an open plan space, make sure to consider the negative impacts and choose a design that will eliminate these issues.
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Also published on Medium.