Often associated with millennials, tech start-ups, and “agile” work teams, open-plan offices have represented a move away from the old-school, closed-door, “corner-office” hierarchy and toward a more democratic workspace. Touted benefits included increases in collaboration, productivity, and creativity, but several years into this trend, workplace studies are poking holes in most of the supposed benefits.
As far back as 2008, research indicated that wall-free workspaces contribute to more conflict, higher blood pressure, and increased turnover among employees. A Danish study revealed that workers in open-space environments took 62% more days off due to sickness. Other more recent surveys have found high levels of noise pollution and distraction and even concerns about “subtle sexism” inherent in the open-plan concept.
As for increased collaboration? Two new joint studies from Harvard University and Harvard Business School seem to refute that idea. The researchers closely monitored employees at two different Fortune 500 companies, before and after they switched from private offices to an open-office plan. The first study found that after participants moved to the open-office plan, they spent 73 percent less time engaging in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messaging shot up by 67 percent and 75 percent, respectively. Results from the second study were only slightly better, showing a 70 percent drop in face-to-face interaction, along with a 22 to 50 percent increase in email conversations among workers in the open-concept space.
Interaction vs. Interruption
How can real-world results be so different from conventional wisdom? For one thing, one person’s “interaction” is another person’s “interruption.” You might encounter (or overhear) your coworkers more often in an open space, but that doesn’t guarantee you're collaborating on work instead of discussing sports scores or celebrity gossip. Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices, told The New York Times, “Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard.”
That may be why so many workers without private offices hide behind headphones or choose a café (or a quiet stairwell) to hold their meetings.
A 2014 U.K. survey of employees found that 85 percent were unhappy with their open-office workspace and couldn’t concentrate; 95 percent said “working privately” was important to them, and they wanted some private space at the office. That could mean anything from a closed-door office to allotted space for pinning up a few pictures of loved ones.
Cost Savings Over Productivity
So why do open offices persist in spite of dissatisfied employees and significant research? Geoffrey James, who writes about HR and office culture for LinkedIn, estimates that companies can save as much as 75 percent of rent costs by choosing open-plan offices. In addition, experts say many companies continue to use them because they’re flexible and light on the budget. A traditional floor plan with private offices uses considerably more space and therefore costs more in rent. John Boyd, a principal with The Boyd Group, a top corporate site selection firm, says the ongoing trend of repurposing previous retail spaces as offices is a big reason:
“These repurposing projects are much more cost efficient and marketable to a wider corporate audience, if they are done [on] the open-space model.” He added, though, that the market has digested much of that obsolete retail space. So the question remains, with 70 percent of offices already utilizing open-floor plans, is there still money to be saved by putting workers in offices they dislike and find less productive? The answer may lie in creating a healthy balance.
A Design for Everyone
The health benefits of sitting less may seem obvious, but companies aiming for overall worker well-being are now looking to Active Design, in which the layout and composition of offices encourages employees to take frequent breaks from their desks and move around throughout the workday. Jonathan Webb, vice president of workplace strategy for Wisconsin-based KI, recommends creating “a variety of different workspaces for different uses.” At his company, for example, a global supplier of contract furniture to businesses, universities, and government sites, HR staff maintain private offices because confidentiality is so important to their work, while the marketing team has a “bullpen,” he says, “since they thrive on—and enjoy—regular interaction.”
This raises an important consideration: personality type. Extroverts might thrive in open-plan spaces, while more introverted types may struggle with the constant interaction and lack of personal space. Knowing your staff, and finding the design that makes them most productive, is the key.
Ultimately, the floor plan of your office is just one of many considerations when building your company culture. You may not have a choice in the matter, but being mindful of the challenges posed by an open-space plan, in cost, productivity, and employee morale, as well as knowing the kind of work you and your colleagues do—and the personality types of those who do it—can help you find the right workspace solution for your team.
Mark Saltveit is the author of The Tao of Chip Kelly (Diversion Books, 2013) and Controlled Chaos: Chip Kelly’s Football Revolution (Diversion Books, 2015). His work has appeared in Harvard Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Oregonian, as well as on his blog Taoish.org and on Warp, Weft, and Way, an academic blog about Chinese philosophy.