Why Open Plan Offices Decrease Productivity

Open Plan Office

Image by Alan Cleaver

Open plan is the office style of our generation. Millions of us work elbow to elbow alongside our neighbours every day. Its supporters claim that it improves disclosure, discussion and debate by allowing us to communicate more freely with one another.

Whilst this may work well in certain creative environments, those of us who do jobs that require quiet and concentration are likely to see our work suffer.

Here we consider the pitfalls of the open plan office as well as possible solutions to the problem.

What’s Wrong With The Open-Plan Office?

The popularity of the open-plan office began for Britain in 1962, when a fourth year architectural student named Frank Duffy stumbled across an article in a magazine about a workplace design that had become popular in Germany.

The layout was based on a study of patterns of communication within organisations. Instead of silence, this design encouraged discussion and communication. Managers were mixed amongst other workers and in many cases there were no offices at all.

How do you feel about Duffy’s discovery? Whilst our workplace designs may make it easier to ask for help or discuss a problem, they also make it far too easy to overhear a conversation about someone’s annoying boyfriend.

We are all guilty of open-plan office self-absorption. If we want to chat it’s perfectly acceptable, but when we want to work it becomes beyond irritating if other people are making noise.

The fact is that for some jobs open-plan simply doesn’t work. Julian Treasure, Chairman of The Sound Agency explains that “Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time”. Trying to do work requires us to listen to a voice in our head and this is impossible if we are listening to other people talk as well.

Whilst open-plan has its benefits, it seems that its constant enforcement, particularly within certain lines of work has a negative effect on output.

What Are The Solutions To The Problem?

A popular solution is the cubicle, in which a desk is enclosed by canvas dividers. However, many workers find this environment claustrophobic and depressing. Not only does this cut out distractions, but it also removes light and a view of the outside world.

Some companies that rely heavily on privacy as part of their daily dealings equip each member of staff with their own office space. However, for many more collaborative businesses like media and advertising this cuts off necessary lines of creative communication.

Is There A Happy Compromise?

There are a number of viable alternatives to the open-plan work space. Some companies are investing in cocoon-like pods that offer employees the choice between open-plan or a quiet working place. While this method does require a certain level of trust on the part of the employer, it also means that people can pick their optimal environment depending on the work they are doing.

One of the best options is glass partitioning. This provides the benefit of sound insulation, whilst not completely cutting us of from our co-workers. Managers can still keep an eye on their staff, and it’s easier to judge whether someone is busy or free for a chat.

Open-plan offices surely have their place, but they are not right for every work environment. Studies have shown that the noise distractions they create reduce our output by up to 66%.This growing body of knowledge is forcing employers to search for a compromise. So, what will your company do?