The open plan office has been a feature of corporate workspaces since the early 1970s. Apparently, the idea was that open plan would improve communication, increase productivity, and enhance collaboration in the workplace. A couple of decades later and I’m struggling to find evidence that the ideas became a reality. From my experience, I have two big arguments against the typical open plan design.
First, the open plan reduces productivity. Noise from personal or shared radio and music systems, phone calls and loud conversations, all interfere with workers’ productivity. Time is wasted on impromptu, over-the-desk conversations, as workers get dragged into a discussion they hadn’t planned to be a part of. Constant interruptions could lead to short attention spans, which means workers take longer to complete a task.
One might argue that workers should simply ignore conversations that don’t concern them. However, having to listen passively is just as disruptive as being a part of the conversation.
Secondly, open plan office designs can contribute to workplace stress:
- Workers have little privacy to work or have telephone conversations; someone always seems to be watching or listening. Even for business calls, workers sometimes go looking for quiet or private space to converse properly.
- Interruptions that reduce productivity are a source of stress. The worker who needs to finish a task or beat a deadline gets frustrated by noise, interruptions, and unwanted conversations, all of which impede the concentration necessary to do the job adequately and quickly.
- Workers sometimes resort to working after official hours, carrying work home, or working over the weekend, in search of a space where there are fewer interruptions from nuisance colleagues. Though that might be a solution, it increases stress by longer working hours, or reduced family and personal time.
Ironically, there now seems to be a business opportunity for design concepts that purport to reduce adverse impacts of the open plan. Even Harvard Business Review has weighed in on the topic.
It’s time the corporate world invested in office design solutions that minimize the distractive nature of the traditional open-plan office.