The Open Office Backlash

The Open Office BacklashThe trend of open office floor plans has been growing in the business world for quite some time. What is an open office? Quite simply, an open office floor plan entails removing the walls and partitions separating employees in the workplace to create a new workspace than is shared and accessible by everyone.

The vision or goal behind implementing an open office is to increase communication, collaboration, and spontaneous creativity or innovation. Open offices are also thought to be attractive to employees because it creates a unique and team-work oriented environment with hierarchies stripped away. So many businesses have bought into the open office mindset that nearly 70% of all U.S. offices have no or low partitions and are moving towards an open floor plan, according to International Facility Management Association.

The History of the Cubicle

In 1964 the cubicle was created by Robert Propst as a solution to the open office floor plans of the 1950s which lacked privacy. According to Fortune the original intent of the office cubicle was, “Not confinement, but liberation- by giving workers privacy, their own space, and the flexibility and autonomy to change postures throughout the day, Propst hoped to set them free.”.

Despite Propst’s intentions, by the 1990s the cubicle became a key symbol for lifeless work and employee confinement. History was bound to repeat itself and workers wanted out, which made it easy for companies to tear down the walls entirely. Ironically, it was a return to the open office floor plans first proposed in Germany during the 1950s.

The Open Office Backlash

Despite the steady rise of open office floor plans across the U.S. over the past few decades many employees have become greatly dissatisfied with this “innovative” trend. Here is some compelling research sharing the key downsides to open offices reported by

  • They decrease productivity. Contrary to popular belief, open offices don’t increase collaboration or make people more productive. An Exeter University study showed they create a 32 percent drop in “workers’ well-being” and 15 percent reduction in productivity.
  • They make employees miserable. A study of 10,000 workers funded by office furniture giant Steelcase revealed that “95 percent said working privately was important to them, but only 41 percent said they could do so, and 31 percent had to leave the office to get work completed.”
  • They create time-consuming distractions. Office workers lose an average of 86 minutes per day due to distractions associated with open-plan offices. As a result, many employees are “unmotivated, unproductive, and overly stressed,” according to the study funded by Steelcase.
  • They result in more sick days. Not surprisingly, employees in open-plan offices take more sick days.  According to The New Yorker, companies with open-plan offices can expect employees to take a whopping 62 percent more sick leave.  
  • They communicate a lack of trust. People aren’t stupid. They know that behind the hip-sounding jargon of “collaborative work areas” lies the perennial desire of the paranoid, insecure micro-manager to peer over every worker’s shoulder at a moment’s notice.
  • They blunt your highly-paid brainpower. According to one study, “senior engineers, bankers, and people working in financial services…found the open-plan environment challenging, particularly when focusing on complex tasks like analyzing figures or working on documents.”

As you can see there are some significant cons when it comes to businesses implementing open offices. The original intent of boosting communication and collaboration comes with some significant downsides. Downsides such as possible decreases in productivity due to distractions and noise around employees, more sick days for employees, and the lack of trust open floor plans can communicate to employees from upper-level management.

Whatever the future holds for office layouts and design, it is clear there needs to be a revolution by bringing back balance to the workplace. Perhaps the best office design and functionality would arise from a “hybrid office”. A new kind of office containing elements from both a traditional and an open office floor plan.