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Open Office Environment: The Negative Effects on Employees

When you think of an open office environment, what comes to mind? For some people, it’s a cool, Millennial-style office space straight out of Silicon Valley, full of low-slung sofas and coffee tables. But for others, it’s an unproductive petri dish, where they have to fight to maintain their concentration.

While originally heralded as the solution to poor teamwork and over reliance on electronic versus face-to-face communication, open offices are slowly being revealed for what they really are: a detriment to the workforce. Here’s a look at the negative effects of open office environments, along with what you can do to reduce their impact in your business workspace.

Open Office Environments Produce Excess Noise

Noise pollution is frequently cited as one of the biggest downsides to an open style workspace. There are numerous work related examples that affect office volume levels, including:

  • Far too many employees in the same area
  • Construction of the environment (“live” space that echoes vs. dampened sound)
  • Amount of phone talk required for work
  • Noise from work machines (printers, buzzers, etc.)
  • Culture (some cultures promote louder or closer talking)
  • Ambient non-work noise (chatter, music, elevator doors, cappuccino machine, etc.)

Workplace noise isn’t just irritating; it can cause long-term health problems, like ulcers and immunological conditions. 

Visual Distractions

If workers are in an environment with nearly 360-degree vision, they are subject to viewing every person who walks by and every gesture of their coworkers.

Breaks in concentration aren’t just a nuisance either. A study at Berlin’s Humboldt University demonstrated that it can take up to 23 minutes for an employee to restore their concentration after an interruption. That can make for a lot of unproductive time if your employees are constantly having their focus broken.

Lack of Privacy

Lack of privacy is another concern for many workers in open environments. This can be problematic for people with more introverted personalities who don’t like the feeling of being watched.

It can also make employees feel stifled when they need to make normal phone calls to home or the doctor’s office. Managers may also feel unable to have frank discussions out of fear that the wrong employees will overhear.

Olfactory privacy is also an issue in many workplaces, and can even result in workers compensation claims or legal action if one worker’s cologne makes another have asthma attacks. And just how much do you want to smell your neighbor’s tuna sandwich or pungent food at lunch?

Poor Productivity from Open Office Environement Conditions

As you can probably guess, all that noise and distraction isn’t good for productivity. When employees constantly have to refocus, they not only lose time, they lose their train of thought. Key ideas may fall between the cracks.

Workers resort to bandage solutions like wearing headphones to drown out noise, which counters the very collaboration and camaraderie the workplace was hoping to foster in the first place. 

open office environment

Low Retention, High Turnover

Employees who are unhappy with an open workplace may wind up seeking employment elsewhere, in a more traditional office setting. Or they may insist on working remotely, which again, undoes the purpose of an open office setting.

Open offices can make it challenging for human resources personnel to recruit new employees, particularly Baby Boomers who until recently have never had to contend with the noise and problems of a “bullpen.”

Increased Spread of Illness

Workers who aren’t able to change their environment or find other employment are at increased risk for more sick days, whether because of physical ailments brought on by stressful work spaces or actual illnesses spread by close contact with their colleagues.

A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health showed that employees in open-plan offices file for 62 percent more sick days than people in conventional closed office settings. Other studies looking at sneeze patterns explain why the common cold and flu may travel faster through open offices.

Other Open Office Problems

There are a host of other issues related to open office concepts that can affect employees negatively: 

  • Not every employee works well at the same temperature. Open offices are often too hot or too cold for some people.
  • Open offices may support gender inequality by stressing appearance over performance or may put undue pressure on employees to worry about how they look over other more work-related concerns.
  • Open floor plans typically don’t give workers a break from their boss’s scrutiny. Some workers just can’t function well with their manager eyeballing them all day.

Fortunately there are some solutions to the disadvantages of open offices. If you must maintain an open office structure and employees don’t necessarily need to be collaborating all the time, one suggestion is to provide high-quality noise cancelling headphones.

Another option is to create zones within the office, much like college libraries have. Make some areas quiet sections, while designating others as far away as possible as group work zones.

open office environment

Encourage an “open door” policy (figuratively, that is) with management about issues like personal hygiene and people who abuse the noise factor. Conduct office meetings to discuss workplace privacy and distractions to get everyone on the same page about expected etiquette and respect.

Private Phone Booths Offer a Solution

Structurally, you can try a clever solution like Zenbooth, a phone booth for the modern office. Zenbooth offers individual booths for one worker, as well as Executive booths big enough for a team of two to use together. 

With Zenbooth, conversations remain private, and workers have access to telephone cables and outlets for power and charging electronics.

Don’t let an open office be the ruin of your company’s productivity and employee retention. Take a proactive stance against the pitfalls of open plans to limit their impact on your workers, and create an environment that works for everybody. 

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