The Quickborner management team from Hamburg is credited with developing the first open office layout in the 1950’s. But the truth is that some version of the open office has existed almost since the very first group work spaces were formed.
A few years ago, people would tell you that wide open floor plans were the ideal setup for every business. Limited funds? An open office is the answer.
Limited space? An open office is what you need. Dozens or hundreds of employees to keep an eye on? An open office is the best option.
For too long, it had been the go-to solution when it came to office design. In fact, a report by the International Facility Management Association found that 70% of offices contained an open floor plan - a huge majority.
Then researchers began to study how workers were responding.
In one report, over 40,000 people in 300 different office buildings were surveyed and monitored and the conclusion was that wide open work spaces were a huge detriment.
Yet despite the disadvantages of an open office layout, it lives on. As a matter of fact, the new Apple headquarters is based on that exact concept. It will cost $5 billion to build and has some fantastic features, but a number of employees are refusing to move from their old offices.
So if you’re planning an office design and would like to avoid a potentially costly mistake, here are 9 disadvantages of an open office layout you should take note of:
1. The benefits of easy collaboration are outweighed by the disadvantages of excess noise
It is a simple fact – the more people you have in one area the noisier it gets. There are conversations happening all around you – whether they are happening face to face or over the phone.
One study has found that overhearing snippets of conversation is more annoying and distracts us more easily than meaningless background noise.
Ease of collaboration is a major benefit in open office layouts, but when you can barely hear the person on the other end of the line during important business calls it's a disaster.
2. Anything and everything can be a distraction
There is only so much you can focus on at one time. But in an open office environment, you are bombarded with stimuli on all sides.
When you have a group of people together in one space, almost anything could be a distraction. And visual noise is a major problem with open layouts.
A study done in 2005 found that the more effective you are at screening out distractions, the more effectively you work in an open office. But the more you multitask, the harder it becomes to do this.
And when your focus is drawn away by something, it usually takes some time (20+ minutes) for you to settle back into whatever you were originally doing.
3. The lack of security can breed mistrust
In an open office, people are walking by your desk all the time. Whether they are colleagues, suppliers and customers, delivery workers or cleaning staff.
You don’t always know them so there is no way to be absolutely certain that your belongings will be safe. And if a phone, wallet or anything else ever goes missing, you will have your suspicions about possible culprits, and other staff will have their own suspicions.
This environment of mistrust between coworkers will make it nearly impossible for you and your team to work together effectively.
4. Privacy is essential to job satisfaction, but impossible to come by
Employers might like the fact they can just stand in one spot and see what every single person in the office is up to. But the average person detests feeling like they are being watched and constantly judged.
This lack of privacy can also harm the supposed easy collaboration that open office layouts engender. Some people are shy about public speaking, and others don’t like asking questions or pitching ideas for fear of being laughed at, so they stay quiet instead.
One in-depth study by IPSOS and Steelcase found that privacy is important to 95% of workers, while another found that having some degree of privacy increases job satisfaction and performance.
5. One person's illness can infect the whole office
While there may be partitions or cubicles between workers, an open office layout means there are no walls. That means everyone is breathing the same air.
And a simple illness like the common cold can take out most of your staff at once, or be passed around the office for months.
A Danish study of 2000 workers found that if there are more than 6 people in an open office, they take as much as 62% more sick days than those in closed offices.
6. We prefer some control over our personal space
Every person has different tastes. While open office layouts are supposed to find a happy medium, there is always going to be someone who is unhappy and needs their quiet space.
A Dutch survey of 7000 workers found that people were taking an average of 2.5 days a year of sick leave just because they weren’t feeling comfortable.
The survey also found that people are less likely to work as hard as they could when their office environment isn’t ideal for them.
In a study conducted in 2005, it was proven that the more personal control a person has over their environment, the more content they were with their job. This metric matters a great deal to businesses that are looking to lower their turnover rate.
7. Open plans bring out the worst in people
With an open plan office, everyone is perceived as completely equal. At least, that is how the concept is supposed work.
But usually there are a few offices available for the top level managers and perhaps one or two top performing or senior staff members.
Even if these are not private offices, there will always be workstations or desk space that are considered prime real estate.
And when this is the case, the competition for those prime spaces will be fierce, which will lead to petty disputes and infighting among your team.
8. Open offices increase stress and affect long term health
A noisy environment is part and parcel of the open office layout. One study found that just three hours of extra noise increased the participants amount of stress hormones.
Over time, this can lead to heart conditions, high blood pressure, insomnia and a weakened immune system.
The same study also discovered that people make less physical adjustments in noisy environments. This means they may suffer from a stiff neck and back on a regular basis, or develop bad posture over time.
9. The final disadvantage of an open office: Lower productivity, higher costs
Open office layouts are touted as being productive for every company. But there are studies and scientific evidence showing that there are at least seven specific disadvantages of open offices which lead to a decrease in productivity.
And when you add up how much that loss of productivity is affecting your bottom line over time, you will realize that open plan offices are not as cost effective as they’re made out to be.
That means you need to work with your employees to design a hybrid office that combines elements of a closed office with elements of an open office.