Is it Time to Rethink the Open Plan Office?

Most modern offices are open plan—with colorful lounge areas and long tables where everyone sits and works alongside one another. But despite their popularity, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting open plan offices might be doing more harm than good. In fact, recent research indicates that open plan offices can decrease employee productivity, health and happiness.

The idea behind open plan offices was one of cost savings and collaboration. Companies could get away with leasing smaller spaces with lower build-out costs.  With everyone working in close proximity, employees would overhear their colleagues and chip in with their own thoughts—thoughts that would otherwise have never been considered.

What has become clear however through the latest research, is that many open plan offices have come to embody the opposite of what they were originally meant to. In terms of communication, open plan offices can prompt too much chatting and interjecting into nearby conversations. Because everyone is always approachable, people find themselves constantly drawn away from the task at hand.

While it may only be someone asking a quick question, or a loud colleague on the phone for a few minutes, all these little distractions add up to a large decline in productivity over the course of a day. According to research conducted by Ipsos and Steelcase’s WorkSpace Futures team, office workers are losing a total of 86 minutes every day to distractions. While some distractions may only be for seconds, the study found that it can take up to 23 minutes to return to a fully focused state of mind.

The study also found that the lack of privacy in an open plan office was detrimental to the overall well being of staff.  It concluded that:

  • Privacy and engagement are ultimately linked

  • Privacy is a universal, basic need - people need privacy (even in the office)

  • Privacy today is about information and stimulation control

  • Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization

Moreover, a study from Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation found employees in open plan offices suffered greater instances of conflict, higher blood pressure and a larger number of sick days.

Since this research has begun to emerge, many businesses have started allowing staff to work from home—which is definitely seen as a perk.  Most of the best candidates will choose the job with a flexible working policy (both in terms of hours and location) even if it is slightly lower in pay.  Candidates know from experience that despite the fancy lounge area, open plan = harder to concentrate. 

So as you create job adverts for your next role, or pitch your company to top talent, think about what they really need to do their job well, because that is what they want. Even if it comes without a fancy chill-out lounge.

About Oliver Parks

Oliver Parks Consulting offers search-based recruitment solutions to the technology sector, specialising in the ERP, CRM, CMS, ECM, BI and Open Source Technology spaces. The firm’s multilingual consultants operate in narrowly-defined niche market segments, enabling them to gain extensive knowledge of the people and companies operating in each technology.  Oliver Parks has a proven track-record with more than 100,000 candidates worldwide and more than 300 clients globally.