Open Office Concept Failure: The Horrid Downsides of No Privacy

The failure of the open office concept has greatly hampered the U.S. work place.

Meetings embody the pros and cons of communal working. They offer a high-octane environment, with ideas coming in from all parts of the room. But this is not the best place to take phone calls, think or handle individually minded tasks–and definitely not for a whole day.

office quiet room

Meetings are hugely beneficial in short bursts of time, but they are a relatively brief part of the working day. Open offices, however, can feel like a never-ending meeting. 

Each member of the staff cannot perform their individual tasks with the distractions of working in an open office, especially without the luxury of sound proof booths​. Workers can feel over-stimulated and unable to focus, while essential, private, discreet communication is almost impossible.



We can understand how the open office concept came about. The immediacy and intimacy of face-to-face dialog offer benefits that can never be matched by electronic methods. And if enhanced communication and collaboration breed better performance, then it is reasonable to assume that any barriers, physical or otherwise, should be removed immediately. So down go the walls of the office–the interior ones, at least–and everything improves. Right?

Wrong. Staff members need time in a quiet environment to collect their thoughts and process information. Walls allow workers to handle their tasks privately, as well as find their optimum environment. These partitions also offer a sense of privacy for customers calls. 

Open office concept failure: Performance affected by the environment

Workers often struggle to perform well in stressful environments, and the constantly stimulating nature of open offices contributes to this. Maintaining low stress levels is essential in upholding high worker performance and staff morale.

Organizations that don't provide employees with favorable working environments often have a large amount of productivity lost to sick days and high staff turnover. High staff turnover requires a lot of resources and time to handle regular recruitment and training, which can equate to large business expenses. 


A lack of privacy can have negatively impact employee stress levels. If you take the example of airplanes, the most expensive seats are the most secluded, and no one enjoys sitting right in the middle with people to their left and right. Similarly, studies have shown that employees placed in such close proximity are not easily able to switch off from the group environment and concentrate on the work in front of them.

Environmental factors

We would not like to have someone else control the heating, lighting and volume levels at home, and work is not any different. Some staff members are motivated by music, while others are frustrated by it. Every worker is different, and partitioned office structures offer this individualized working environment. Temperature, light and noise affect people in very different ways, and a balance must be found to offer a positive working environment.


Staff in open offices can feel that they are under constant supervision This pressured environment can produce a feeling of guilt and anxiety among lower-level employees, causing them to feel like they must always appear proactive and hard at work. Rather than allowing themselves short breaks and time to make important decisions, they can feel a responsibility to appear busy – rather than actually be productive – instead. The takeaway from this? Staff should be monitored more on their results rather than how glued they are to their computer. 

Constant analysis

Employees can feel that every action is seen and analyzed by co-workers and management, which affects their ability to perform their role. No one likes the feeling of someone breathing down their neck. If every sales call is listened to by other staff members, the salesperson will inevitably feel added pressure and will be unable to be at their most natural and persuasive.

On the phone

Callers to a business want to be assured of the importance and privacy of their calls. However, this can be difficult to achieve with all the background noise that is generated in an open-plan office with little to no soundproofing. For the employee receiving the call, it can be difficult to maintain focus in an undivided office with many potential interruptions and distractions.

Many office workers need to take phone calls involving sensitive information that shouldn't be shared outside the relationship between the caller and staff member. And there is an easier solution for this than complete renovation, such as placing one of Zenbooth's phone booth pods inside the office. These make a quiet area that offers the essential privacy clients require.

Sensitive information

Projects that involve non-disclosure agreements must be handled with high sensitivity, and discussions on these matters should only be shared among a select part of the team. This is often difficult in open offices, where conversations can be heard across the room. The inconvenience of moving to meeting rooms to discuss these private matters can waste both time and energy, especially for small matters.

Blocking dialog

Although open offices were engineered with the intention of improving communication, they can have rather counter-productive effects. (See our guide to open office pros and cons​ here.) Instead of encouraging regular dialog, employees can feel inhibited by the openness. They may be unwilling to discuss important work topics with other staff members, not wanting the entire office to overhear their conversations.

Health problems

Various studies have shown that sick days can be much higher in open offices. As well as often creating a stressful environment through disruptive noises and a lack of privacy, viruses are transmitted quicker in offices with few physical barriers between employees. This results in higher staff absenteeism because of illnesses caught at work. Similarly, when recovering, previously sick employees are more cautious about returning to work and potentially infecting others.

Not always so flexible

Many open offices don't have fixed positions where staff work each day, with the intention of allowing flexibility. But this can be counter-productive. There are often more desirable positions, usually near windows and away from the center of the room, and as these are not fixed, disputes can occur over where staff members choose to sit.




Many higher level managers benefit from the privacy of an individual office. Regarding prestige, a separate working space is often seen as a reward for reaching a certain level of importance in the company. On a more practical level, management may require somewhere that offers a private environment that their employees feel they can discuss sensitive information that they do not want their colleagues to hear.

A Solution to the Open Office Concept Failure

In summary, while open offices were supposed to improve working relations, they often have the opposite effect. The lack of space and privacy can cause divisions among workers while lowering staff morale. Similarly, communal working was meant to speed up communication and productivity, but the staff members have felt that the lack of division between individual work and group work has left them stressed and unable to be productive due to the over-stimulating environment.

The walls that were torn down to build open offices are being put back up. The optimism of the open method of working has been replaced by the realization that employers need to provide individual spaces and privacy. 

The question is, can there be a middle ground that combines both employee privacy and space for phone calls with open spaces that stimulate collaboration and discussion?

Our Zenbooths come in sizes fit for individuals or up to 2 people​. They block up to 40 decibels of noise, contain a work station, USB port and even a hook up for wifi. The ventilation system is motion sensor based, and the entire booths are eco-friendly, made from recyclable materials right in the USA.

Get in touch with us today​ to learn more about the features and uses of our booths, and check out testimonials from satisfied customers here.


Aug 14, 2018 • Posted by Boff

I’m lucky I’ve slogged enough to be able to turn down employment that forces me into an open plan office environment. I worked in a diverse, socially progressive company environment in an old building. We then shifted to an open plan, and we were at each other’s throats. Terrible. I’ve heard worse.

Sep 09, 2018 • Posted by Pat

Yes confidentiality on the phone is important.

Specially when two account managers sitting close enough to each others talk to clients. Imagine what can happen if one the clients overhears confidential details about another client. Well I have seen that in my previous work and they lost their most important client.

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