Planning Your Next Office: Open Plan or Not? That is the Question!

For years we have been convinced that the present and future of workplace design was going to be that of the “open plan” office.  To many, the benefits of open plan work environments are almost self-evident.  First and foremost they are efficient.  Since 2006, the average space allocation for a full time office worker in the United States has decreased from 250 square feet to 176 square feet.  The other major benefit which was  anticipated to come from the open plan office was that of increased collaboration.  Workers would be free to talk and exchange ideas, and managers would be more accessible and approachable.  Apparently corporate America got the memo.  According to the International Facilities Managers Association (IFMA) close to 70% of U.S. employees now work in an open office environment. While this all looks good on paper, some recent research conducted on the effects of open office layouts paints a different picture.  According to recent research, there are significant issues that employees face when working in an open plan office.

Noise:  It turns out that people like to work in a relatively quiet environment.  Over 70% of employees surveyed indicated that noise was their biggest concern in the office.  Knowledge-based workers need to read, write, and concentrate.  This is difficult to do if one can hear the conversations of their peers, the copy machine, phones ringing, etc…Many employees have turned to wearing headphones in the office to avoid the distractions of the noise around them.  While these individual “cones of silence” may help block out the noise, they are also a collaboration killer.

Privacy:  American workers place a high value on personal, private space.  In addition to the obvious benefits of privacy, studies suggest that having a private space gives employees a deeper belief that they are valued, and lends more perceived significance to the work that they do. Further, reduced employee autonomy (discretion and freedom in the workplace) leads to higher levels of stress.

Health:  Research indicates that open plan office environments are contributing to an increase in the number of sick days taken by employees.  In a peer-reviewed study conducted by the Danish Ministry of Employment, employees who worked in an open plan office environment reported 62% more days of sickness absence than those working in private office environments.  The study suggested that in addition to open office worker’s increased exposure to some viruses, noise and stress were also contributors.

What to do?

While these studies make a compelling case against open plan offices, I don’t think we’ll be seeing a paradigm shift back to a complete private office environment anytime soon.  However, being aware of these pitfalls and maintaining a balance of open space and “un-assigned” private areas may make the open plan workplace much more livable…and workable!

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