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Kal Vaughan
Kal Vaughan
  • 3 Minute Read
  • 08th May 2013

The open plan office conundrum

A familiar sight in today’s modern workplace, open plan offices were intended to encourage a fertile backdrop for debate and teamwork, but with grumpy office workers complaining about a lack of privacy and distraction, has the premise of open offices backfired?
A conundrum? Well in a word, yes. It seems workers benefit from interaction with others, as a social stimulus, but not too much of it. Studies have found that there is a measured reaction of unhappiness and unproductivity in office workers when overloaded with noise and other office stimulation.

What’s this got to do with open plan offices?

Being that an open plan office is usually a large open space, you can appreciate there is a lot of cross-noise from co-workers having conversations with their colleagues and on the telephone, among other things.

In fact, noise is the number one complaint of workers in an open plan office, followed by lack of privacy, which incidentally was intended to inspire new ideas, something which has backfired as conversations are usually kept short and superficial, to stop prying ears listening in.

open plan office space

An aesthetic design, that comes at a price.

Open plan offices were designed to encourage disclosure, discussion and debate, where managers were seated among co-workers, allowing organisations to manage their workforce with more flexibility.

Now it seems, there is growing resistance to open plan offices as a viable working environment, with several decades of studies finding this type of office associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.

As the walls of the office have been taken down and with it the personal space and privacy of office workers, new ones have been established with the use of headphones and wearing of ear plugs. Workspace is shrinking, averaging 500sq ft in the 1970’s down to 200sq ft in 2010.

Top annoying activities of co-workers

#1 Excessively loud talking

#2 Loud mobile ringtones

#3 Failure to return borrowed desk items

#4 Eating smelly food at lunchtime

A 2009 study of open plan offices found them to have a high average turnover of staff, and are said to reduce productivity and impair memory, while giving rise to sickness, anger and insecurity.

office noise levels

It’s too quiet…

In larger open plan offices, the problem of being in a noisy office can be reversed, with there being too little noise. The quieter the office, the more difficult it becomes to have confidential and personal conversations.

The problem is especially prominent in the classroom type of open plan office, where there are rows of office workers seated at their desks, only working at their computers.

Pink Noise?

In effort to strike a balance in quieter offices, some companies have conducted research on the effects of broadcasting pink noise in their offices, which is said to make human speech less discernible.

Pink noise is a sound similar to wind, rain or waves and contains the full range of audio frequencies audible to a human.

the good things about open plan offices

The pros of open plan offices

From a business perspective, open plan offices offer financial sense, as they are more economical and flexible. The lack of dividing walls enables more effective use of space, with open office layouts being more cost-effective in terms of heating and lighting.

Any future changes to floor plan layout are easy to achieve, with the open plan style offering a cost effective solution to reconfiguring any changes required, for new departments or team members.

The structure and layout of open plan offices, where managerial staff work alongside their colleagues is said to promote a less hierarchical company structure, giving rise to greater flexibility and department communication within a company.

Management offices are said to have a divisive effect on office workers, which can contribute to the ebbing of beneficial ad hoc business conversations.

business solutions

Is an open plan office right for you?

An open plan office may make financial sense to a business, but with strong evidence finding the effects of working in one may inhibit a workers performance, is it a wise business venture?

Depending on your sector and type of business, an open plan office may work for you. Innovation will always be a big buzz word in the business world, but is this format intended to promote it in the workplace still relevant? For creative and digital media firms the answer may be yes..

Construction of the world’s biggest open plan office is being commissioned by Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg in California. Does he know something we don’t, or should someone have told him why open plan offices might not be such a great idea after all.

Money talks, and at the end of the day, you've got to pay your bills one way or another. It would seem though, in some cases of using an open plan office, this approach can be a paradox between business costs and its advancement.

As a business strives to improve its performance on all fronts, isn't it short sighted to neglect the requirements of the people tasked with the progression of a company?

Photo courtesy of Foundation7