Ah, the open plan office: no walls, no dividers, no cubicles. Just wide swaths of open, shared workspace.
According to the New Yorker, 70% of offices in the US now have an open floor plan. Chances are your office has one too. But has the open office revolution made us more or less productive?
Let’s find out. In this article we’ll try to determine once and for all how an open plan office impacts productivity.
Will an open office plan increase productivity?
The open office concept was originally intended to facilitate communication and improve the flow of ideas. However, it mainly caught on as a reaction to the cubicle farms that dominated offices around the world—not because cubicles are a roadblock for good communication, but because open concept offices are significantly cheaper than private offices or cubicles. By cramming more people into fewer square feet, companies with open office plans can save 50% of the costs associated with traditional office layouts.
With a strong monetary incentive to move away from the cubicle model, employers implemented what we know today as the open plan office: long desks pushed together, no walls or partitions, “pop-up” collaboration spaces, and fewer (if any) private offices.
This type of layout, we’re meant to believe, increases collaboration, opens up communication, and gets people participating in impromptu creative discussions.
And there’s evidence that open offices do in fact have some positive effects on the way we work. Getting teams to work together in an open space promotes face-to-face interactions, which are thought to be much better for collaboration than communicating through other means. In 2013, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously canceled her company’s remote work policy specifically to get her employees collaborating in person.
Open plan offices can also:
- Level the playing field. Interns sit next to Directors, and sometimes even the CEO sits at a communal desk. Upper management suddenly becomes much more approachable.
- Introduce more natural light. Opening up the office means fewer walls which could mean, depending on where the office is, a sunnier disposition.
- Provide some variety in seating. Want to stand while you work? Try the communal standing desk. Want to lie down and work from a couch? That’s also an option in an open concept office.
- Help create a strong sense of camaraderie. Close proximity and time spent socializing with coworkers can strengthen teams, create close-knit social dynamics, and help develop your unique company culture.
- Break down silos. Rather than separating distinct teams with walls and doors, an open plan office enables workers from one team to walk over or simply turn in their chair to communicate with another team. This can break down boundaries and create a more fluid working environment.
These are all great, but what about productivity?
This is where the open plan office seems to hit a wall (pun intended). Open plan offices can produce the following threats to productivity:
- Offices without walls mean you’re more likely to be interrupted by colleagues at any time, and it can be difficult to get started again.
- Distractions are everywhere: colleagues talking on the phone, pen clickers, desk tappers, loud typers, and nosy glances. Researchers have found that office noise impairs workers’ ability to recall information and do basic arithmetic.
- Privacy is significantly diminished, which can negatively affect your productivity. A lack of privacy can lead to more serious problems, too.
- Securing the few conference and meeting rooms available to get some privacy and quiet time becomes more like a competitive sport.
- The pressure to appear constantly “on” and engaged because managers and CEOs are literally looking over your shoulder. This can result in increased stress or, in some cases, burnout.
- Everyone can see you leaving. If you’re the first to leave, people may assume you’ve been unproductive. This can affect your self-esteem and lead to increased stress, which does lead to being unproductive.
- An open office may even be bad for our health. In a study of more than 2,400 workers in Denmark, researchers found that as the number of people working in a single room went up, the number of employees who took sick leave increased as well. And that sickness spreads fast, which can destroy the productivity of entire teams.
I know what you’re thinking: clearly the open plan office is not great for productivity.
But before we make that assessment, there’s another factor to consider: the type of team and role. Creative employees like designers, writers, editors, developers, and programmers, for instance, might prefer more traditional office layouts where they have the privacy and solitude needed to focus on a task without any interruptions. On the other hand, teams that require impromptu meetings to hash out ideas and constant face-to-face communication might prefer an open concept office.
It seems that the ideal office layout for productive, engaged employees would combine the best of both worlds. What would this look like? It would be a combination of open collaboration spaces and private, assigned desks (preferably with dividers or full walls). By staying flexible and providing options for all kinds of employees and roles, employers can account for the individual style and manner that makes their people most productive.