Are open plan offices a bad thing?

Open plan offices have been popular in office design for more than a decade. In fact, this trend has become so commonplace that walls in the workplace are seen as something of a sin. What kind of cruel boss would put these barriers between their team members? If you aren’t careful, workspace walls could even see you accused of harbouring loneliness and damaging team morale. And, we all know that the threat of accusations like those is enough to keep a company manager up at night.

But, is it possible that all this time, open plan offices have actually been a bad thing? As remote work comes more to the fore and brings increased productivity with it, many managers are left wondering whether their office wouldn’t serve better with a step back to privacy. According to advocates like Susan Cain (American writer and lecturer, and author of the 2012 book ‘Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking’, which argues that modern Western culture misunderstands and undervalues the traits and capabilities of introverted people), this open plan phenomenon has even been preventing the creativity it attempts to encourage.

How did open plan offices come about?

Before we can get to the bottom of whether open plan offices are positive or not, it’s essential that we consider how they became such a large part of our current working culture. The recent trend for open plan offices was with Google’s California office space in 2005. Their Mountain View loft signalled the dawn of a new working era and architect Clive Wilkinson set about creating a workspace to match the occasion. That workspace was mostly open plan, creating the feeling of a ‘neighbourhood’. When Google, then only seven-years-old, found increasing levels of success, other companies soon followed this design concept. Of course, Google can’t take the full weight of the open plan office on their shoulders. Open plan designs can be seen in offices from as early as 1939.

Why did open plan offices become big business?

The real question is, why exactly did Google want to invest in open workspace design in the first place. Why did Frank Lloyd Wright design the first partition-less office back in 1939? Trust us; it wasn’t just to make things look good. In reality, there is some logical thinking behind open plan designs. The idea, of course, being that an open space will encourage free and communal thinking.

First and foremost, the open plan was supposed to encourage ease of communication among team members. This, in turn, was hoped to lead to higher levels of creativity through the sharing of ideas. Steve Jobs himself said that “Ideas don’t happen in the boardroom, they happen in corridors”. This is a sentiment which seems even more viable in open plan designs.

Of course, that alone isn’t enough incentive to change the entirety of the working world. But, open plan offices were first thought to bring more benefits besides. For one, they did away with the unwanted power dynamics of individual offices. With an open plan, there are no arguments about who has a bigger office. And, of course, given that this is a business matter, the lowered costs of open plan also played a large part in its rise to office fame.

Private offices or cubicles?

In a bid to increase employee collaboration and cultivate a unified workspace, many companies opted to use open place offices. Whilst private offices or cubicles once gave employees privacy, these were routinely replaced with shared desks and open spaces. By enabling employees to operate from the same location, businesses hoped that these redesigns would have a positive impact on team-building, productivity and efficiency.

Although open plan offices are still exceedingly common in the UK, they haven’t always been as successful as people assume. In fact, open plan offices have caused various practical and logistical issues in offices up and down the country.

With companies always keen to streamline processes and increase efficiency within the workplace, it’s important to ascertain whether open plan offices should still be ‘de rigueur’ in the workplace, or whether it’s time for an office overhaul.

Why are open plan offices falling from grace?

Open workspaces rose, and now they seem to be falling. Many articles are appearing about the damage open plan has done to the working world. Some even call for the immediate ban of this office layout but, why exactly has this change of attitude come about? What makes open plan offices such a bad thing?

For the most part, studies reveal that open plan offices increase stress levels, which actually damage creative thought and problem-solving. And, anyone who’s tried to come up with original ideas while listening to the endless ringing of co-worker’s phones can contest to that. There’s even some evidence that the anxiety induced by an open working environment can lead to poor posture and skeletal trouble. That results in more sick days and, again, none of that supposed increased productivity.

As Susan Cain discusses in her book, ‘Quiet’, open plan offices also fail to account for introversion. That means quieter individuals in a team are often miserable in their environments. Not to mention that they’ll often feel unable to tap into their exhausted creativity.

As if that weren’t downside enough, Harvard researchers even found that, far from inviting interaction, enforced open plans led workers to withdraw. Studies revealed many choosing to wear headphones during working hours. While open plan offers benefits on paper, then, the signs suggest that they don’t quite work in practice.

Is an open workspace design effective?

When employees are happy and healthy, studies show their productivity increases. Similarly, employee collaboration has been shown to enhance business outputs, thus creating more revenue. For many people, giving staff the opportunity to work side by side, without any physical barriers, should increase collaboration and employee wellbeing, and, therefore, improve business performance.

However, the impact of open workspace design hasn’t always been as intended. In fact, a study of Fortune 500 companies in the US showed that employee interaction actually decreased following the switch to an open plan office design. Despite being in close proximity to one another and having no physical barriers to prevent interaction, the rate of emails and instant messages increased when employees were working in an office plan office, but the amount of face-to-face interaction between employees fell. Interestingly, productivity also decreased following the implementation of an open workspace design.

Collaboration vs. Creativity?

When employees collaborate with one another and engage in cross-departmental projects, it can bring successful and innovate results. Indeed, many companies have benefited from increasing collaboration in the workplace.

Whilst an open workspace design should make it easier for employees to collaborate, evaluations of open place offices have shown something very different. When working in an open space, employees tend to feel that they are being observed. When under social pressure or supervision, we tend to take fewer risks and be less creative. With employees less willing to take a creative approach to problem-solving, many companies running open plan offices saw their productivity levels fall.

Distractions and noise levels

Many employees actively dislike open workspace designs, because they find it difficult to concentrate when they are surrounded by other people. The constant buzz of the office can interrupt workers when they are trying to complete tasks, and this can reduce efficiency quite dramatically.

Furthermore, when people are working together in an open plan office, they feel more able to interrupt one another. Whether employees lose their train of thought because of constantly ringing phones, are interrupted by their colleagues or struggle to communicate via the phone due to noise levels, many employees believe that working in an open plan environment actually has a detrimental effect on their productivity levels.

With a reduction in employee interaction and a loss of creativity in the workforce, it seems that the realities of open plan offices haven’t lived up to their ideals. However, there have been some noticeable benefits when companies have switched to an open workspace design.

Health benefits of open plan offices

Staying fit and healthy means engaging in regular physical activity, and this can be difficult for office workers who may spend a large proportion of their day sitting behind a desk. When compared to workers in private offices and cubicles, however, employees in open plan spaces tend to move around more.

As a result, an open workspace design could be said to increase employee physical activity and provide associated health benefits. As companies are consistently encouraged to make changes in order to improve employee health and wellbeing, this could be one of the major advantages associated with open workspace designs.

Reduced costs

By stripping out private offices and removing desk dividers and cubicles, companies were able to house more employees in one space. Where five private offices may have catered for five employees, for example, the same amount of space could easily be used to cater for upwards of 20 employees when shared desks and workstations are used instead.

This means that companies could increase their workforce without moving to larger premises, thus significantly reducing costs. By maximising the company’s existing resources, open plan offices may have given the illusion of improved productivity simply because there was space for more employees to perform their roles.

Redesigning open place offices

Despite being a popular design choice in recent years, many firms are now moving away from the standard open plan office format. By adapting the traditional open workspace design, companies are still able to make the best use of their premises and maximise the space available, but the negative impacts associated with open plan offices can be avoided.

In open plan offices, many organisations operate a free-desk or hot-desk policy. Rather than having assigned seating and desks, employees simply find a desk that’s free and work from that location. Depending on the industry you operate in and the role of employees, however, this isn’t always an efficient way to structure the office.

If an employee requires a moderate or large amount of equipment in order to be able to perform their role, for example, they’ll need to have sufficient access to it. Creating dedicated workspaces for some employees could actually improve efficiency.

Furthermore, an open workspace design can be modified to incorporate collaborative areas and more isolated spaces. By offering a range of facilities, such as cubicles in quieter areas of the office, employees who are performing highly complex tasks will be able to carry out their work without their productivity being negatively impacted by the open plan environment.

By rethinking open workspace design and using interior design features to overcome the drawbacks associated with open plan spaces, companies can successfully improve productivity and efficiency, as well as maintaining a healthy, creative and collaborative working environment.

What should you do about it?

Does this mean that you need to redesign your entire open plan office? Not necessarily. Some of the largest companies in the world use this office model and see results from it. As such, doing away with open plan altogether could do some harm to the work your team produce. Not to mention that open plan is a cheaper way to achieve the office you want.

It’s fair to argue, though, that merging this design with a more private office model seems to be the way forward. Rather than offering entirely open plan offices, many companies now realise the benefits of mixing personal and communal spaces. This is the best of both worlds, and it’s a reality you could bring to your office by contacting Jackdaw Studio on (0)207 375 0213 today.