Why the open plan office fail

Open plan office

Office chatter. Ringing phones. Keyboard typing sound. Mouse clicking noise. Beeps and ping alerts coming from computers every few minutes. These are the typical noise distractions in an open plan office.

Open plan offices may appear cool, but in reality workers report suffering from too much noise, a lack of privacy and a higher risk of catching the flu. The design, once heralded for creating a more collaborative workplace, is now causing headaches to office workers everywhere.

Apparently the design of open plan offices speeds up the spread of germs and viruses. A study conducted by the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health revealed that employees working at open-plan offices take 62% more sick days than those working in more private set-ups.

Workplace productivity suffers as well. The increased exposure to noise distractions makes tasks requiring concentration much harder to accomplish. Additionally, the fact that one’s space is open for all to see makes some employees feel more vulnerable or guarded about their movements—which again affects their ability to relax and focus on their jobs.

No wonder TIME called the open plan office “a hotbed of stress”.


A brief history of the open plan office design

The open plan office had its origins way back in the early 20th century when architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright saw walls and rooms as “downright fascist”. They considered the “tearing down of walls” as less confining and liberating. Later developments in office design introduced the cubicle set-up as a semi-private option for employees. In the ‘60s, American furniture company Herman Miller presented design varieties by offering different desk heights and adopting the modular approach in the construction of office furniture.


What’s wrong with the design

Today, the modern open plan office was designed to foster team work. Those who advocated its use believed that increased interaction among workers will lead employees to get more inspiration in order to form new ideas.  However, research reveals that while conversations are indeed frequent in open-plan offices, they also tend to be short and superficial owing to the fact that these talks are actually heard by everyone else.



So how can managers deal with the shortcomings of the open plan office? By allowing diversity in office design and recognizing that different employees need different surroundings to work well on their tasks can help solve the problem. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Google’s former director of global design, Christopher Coleman, illustrated perfectly what worked for the company. “We found that they need a lot of diversity. There are so many ways to work—as a team, solo—and so many kinds of workers, from introverts to extroverts and so on. We create many different places so people can be as productive as possible—from formal and informal conference rooms to open spaces to stretching and yoga areas and gyms.”

Of course, not all companies can spring for a new yoga room but small changes in office policies can do wonders for improving workplace productivity that’s affected by the open-plan set-up. In an open plan office, one of the biggest challenges is balancing the openness and availability with the need for privacy. For example, managers can consider allowing teams or individuals to do their work in private rooms. If the current set-up becomes too distracting for work and effective collaboration, making unused rooms available for all can perhaps do wonders.

Implementing different break schedules for the different teams in the office may also help minimize workplace distractions, such that one team will be working on a certain period while another takes its break for lunch or rest. This will allow the working team to focus more on their tasks while the others are away.


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