Open office spaces have initiated the halcyon days of productivity. Or they’re a harbinger of workplace productivity doom. It all depends on whom you ask.
Open offices were meant to be the antidote to the woes of cubicle dwelling — a friendlier, more efficient and generally more human workplace. And while these office setups do come with some benefits, they’re also not without their shortcomings. As a result, open office plans have received a fair amount of backlash in recent years.
So do open office plans help productivity, or do they inhibit it? Turns out the answer is both.
The open office concept was devised in Germany in the 1950s, but it’s only become popular in the United States within the past decade. The U.S. trend caught on fast: A whopping near-70 percent of American workers now find themselves in open offices. From corporate behemoths like Google to scrappy e-commerce startups like Saatva Mattress Company, companies large and small have made the transition to collaborative workspaces.
For employers, the benefits of open office spaces are obvious. They reduce overhead by minimizing the cost of office space and equipment. There are no cubicle materials to purchase, more people can be squeezed into less square footage, and consequently there are fewer maintenance costs for the company as a whole. Open offices also allow for easy observation of employees and greater assurance that workers aren’t slacking off on the job.
Beyond their cost-saving benefits, open offices are thought to foster a sense of shared mission, create a less hierarchical, more laid-back atmosphere, and facilitate collaboration between coworkers. This collaboration, in turn, can promote greater productivity and creative thinking amongst coworkers (or so the thinking goes).
There is some evidence that open office spaces achieve exactly what they set out to do. Some studies have found they can indeed cultivate a sense of community and increase the efficiency with which information is distributed throughout a team. When executives and workers share the same workspace, it can break down barriers and increase understanding between employees at all levels of the company. This can increase the likelihood that problems will be solved efficiently and effectively. All of this can have a profound effect on workplace productivity.
In spite of these benefits, we can’t just say that open office spaces are a productivity boon and leave it at that. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
While open office spaces do promote more interaction between coworkers, this isn’t always a good thing.
For starters, several studies have found that open offices are noisy places, and this noise is a persistent distraction for workers. From ringing phones to water cooler talk, noisy interruptions can waste employees’ time and drain their productivity — especially when they feel they have no control over their environment. Headphones or “quiet hours” can help, but this sometimes inhibits the collaboration open spaces are meant to afford.
In addition to being a distraction, background noise can actually inhibit employees’ cognitive performance. It also contributes to a general sense of overstimulation in open offices, which has been linked to heightened stress. Stress, in turn, can be a serious productivity killer.
Another downside of open offices is they are devoid of privacy. (Anyone who’s ever received a call from their doctor while sitting elbow-to-elbow with their coworkers can attest to this.) This may facilitate collaboration, but it can also increase stress. When employees have nowhere to stash their valuables, take confidential meetings, or do anything else that might benefit from a little privacy, their ability to focus on their jobs is going to suffer. This explains why studies have found a sense of privacy can improve job performance. By depriving employees of privacy, you might decrease their ability to be productive.
Finally, open office spaces can hamper productivity by increasing absenteeism due to sickness. One study found that workers in open office spaces take an average of 62 percent more sick days than those who work in private offices. I don’t have to explain to you how productivity is affected by employees spending more time away from work.
So there are some downsides to open office spaces when it comes to productivity. But reverting to cubicles won’t solve all these workplace woes. (In fact, research has found cubicle dwellers are the most miserable workers of all.) So what’s the solution?
Achieving a healthy balance
According to research, the office setup that would best maximize productivity in the workspace would be to give every employee their own private office. But seeing as most companies aren’t going to spring for that floor plan anytime soon, the solution may lie in finding a healthy balance between collaborative and private office spaces.
Employees benefit from collaborative workspaces, but they also need to have places they can retreat to in order to process interactions, hold private meetings, conduct work that requires strict concentration or is time-sensitive, or otherwise satisfy their own personal work style. When employees feel empowered to shift their work environment depending on the type of work in front of them, it can increase their morale and their performance on the job.
To achieve this, consider adding private alcoves, workbays or breakout rooms to an otherwise open office space. Also, don’t discount the impact of other environmental factors in the office. No matter the configuration of your workspace, you can improve employees’ health and productivity by ensuring the flow of quality air, using natural lighting and providing access to green spaces.
Perhaps the most important takeaway? Culture is king. If you create a work environment in which employees feel valued, executives are approachable and workers are empowered to adapt their workstation to their own needs (or work outside of the office if necessary), then you’ll have the best chance of inspiring a motivated and productive workforce.
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