Open Plan Office Research: 8 Startling, Negative Takeaways

Almost a decade ago, corporations, following the example of Google and others, adopted the open office floor plan​. Both startups and established firms, big and small, rushed to redesign and embrace what they thought was a revolutionary concept. Even the United States Embassy in London eliminated a large number of individual offices in its recent move.

Advocates for taking down office and even cubicle walls trumpeted phrases like “community osmosis.”​ They argued that private space for concentration mattered less than increasing the opportunity for collaboration so every employee could find themselves “better tuned to the office vibe."

Open office spaces also, according to those using them, broke down the notions of hierarchy and increased flexibility of both discussion and action. It did not hurt that one large room filled with desks crammed together cost much less than separate offices or even cubicle mazes.

Younger workers, chiefly millennials, also reported that they enjoyed an open office plan more than other formats.



After a decade, however, studies and statistics show that the open plan office has more cons than pros​, taking a toll on both the health of individual workers and the productivity of the business. 

One business owner who experimented with it said “Many people agree — they can’t stand the open office,” he says. “They never get anything done and have to do more work at home.”  

Here are eight of the many reasons why the open office concept is failing​, & actually undermines the benefits imagined by workplace planners.

1. Open Plan Office Research Indicates Too Many Audial Distractions

A survey by Canada Life Group Insurance claims that the average office worker loses 86 minutes per day to distraction and the biggest culprit could be noise pollution. Noise, it turns out, also has startling health effects.

Furthermore, an academic study released last fall found that “irrelevant speech has consistently been reported as the most distracting, causing performance decrements for workers.” 

The drone of “babble” could create concentration-enhancing white noise, but more often than not, some speaker's voices grow more discernible than others. In controlled experiments, some people subjected to the same level of noise and distraction as an open office, actually lost the ability to do simple arithmetic.

Add to the incessant talking the usual cacophony of office noises, such as ringing telephones, copiers and faxes, and the open office plan transforms from the imagined ideal of a collaborative environment into an irritating soundscape that one in three workers report to be a strain to drown out.

2. Too Many Visual Distractions

Some answer the audial distraction issue by saying “Just put on headphones.” Headphones may drown out the hubbub of constant conversation, but cannot eliminate another important problem, visual distractions. Studies show that activity outside of one’s field of vision disrupts concentration and analytical thinking, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article. 

Even minor distractions can disrupt productive work for up to 20 minutes.

Attention paid to the harmful effects of visual noise has led some companies to encourage more remote work or invest in new designs that restore at least some semblance of privacy and division.

open plan office research

3. Worse Physical Health, Leading to More Sick Days

Elementary school teachers already know this dynamic well. Put 40 individuals into a single room for most of the day during flu season and the inevitable happens. Any moderate to highly communicable virus will sweep through most of the occupants of the space. 

Open floor office plans meant to encourage the free flow of ideas and communication often facilitate the flu more than productive work. A Swedish government study confirmed that open office plans saw significantly more short-term illness days-off than other formats. Some some open plan office research showed increases of up to 62 percent. 

Companies that fully embrace the open office ideal also tend to push harder the concept of teamwork. Motivated workers are much more likely than schoolchildren to ignore personal, even contagious, illness out of fear of letting the group down or looking like a malingerer. Certainly, this admittedly admirable attribute has less bad impact on office designs with more personal privacy.

4. Worse Mental Health, Leading to More Conflict and Turnover

Open office advocates contend that the increased collaboration, more laid back atmosphere, and opportunity for spontaneous brainstorming creates collective creativity that enhances the entire operation. Experts studying the format, however, argue that open offices lead not just to more physical, but also mental struggles. 

A Canadian firm found that their open office led not to a more liberated and content workforce, but to a situation where employees felt “disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome.” Instead of more cohesion, “coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful.” Senior level employees most responsible for analysis and important decision-making fared worse of all.

5. Communication Is Less Work-Related And Diminishes Creative Thinking

Most agree that open offices facilitate more communication, but the increased frequency of interaction boosts productive discussion far less than planners imagined. According to Jennifer Veitch,an environmental psychologist with the National Research Council of Canada, “A lot of the time, the conversation is more about what’s on TV than about actual work.”

Another expert expressed concern​ in the New York Times about the marginalization of “the lone genius” who needs solitude to be at his or her best. This, she argues, leads less often to great bursts of creativity and more often to mission destructive “groupthink.”

6. Research Indicates Open Office's Are “Hell” For Introverts

Between 16 and 50 percent of all people are at least somewhat introverted. Introverted does not simply mean shy or lacking in people skills, but refers to a person who also wants more control over their physical environment. 

This does not simply boil down to personality, but to the wiring of the individual brain itself. While claiming that the format was “devised by Satan himself in one of the deepest caverns of hell” may be overstating it, open office concepts can put at least half of the company’s employees at a serious disadvantage.

Open office plans encourage companies to favor people who demonstrate “people skills,” while shunning those who need solitude. Studies indicate that not only is there a high correlation between introverted personalities and creativity, but that extroverts may also need privacy and solitude to do their best.

As one frustrated writer who left the open office world behind expressed in frustration, “Some of us thrive on office life: the group projects, the plentiful birthday cake, the conference calls, the palace intrigue. But some people need space to work.”

7. Less Productivity

Open office distractions often lead employee brains away from fertile thinking and work to “a chain of distraction” that includes checking emails and private messages, browsing social media, or other unproductive endeavors.  

Even worse, constant disruptions and distractions lead to significantly more mistakes. Research subjects made more mistakes even after just a three second distraction. Another expert revealed that in her study, constantly distracted employees had a 50 percent higher error rate.

One researcher concluded that the work done in open office plans “reflected risk factors to individual productivity and well-being, such as taking extra breaks, compromising the quality of work, working overtime and exerting oneself harder.”

What about millennials’ embrace of the open office? While they may enjoy, or at least endure, an open office more than older workers, research indicates that their generation may love it less over time. 

As the brain ages, even beyond 30 years, it grows more easily sidetracked and less able to quickly get back on task. Just as a millennial acquires value as a resource of institutional knowledge, they will grow less able to function in an open office.

With workers spending less time on tasks and making more mistakes, one must wonder if open offices are realizing any cost benefits at all.

8. The Costs of Lost Performance More Than Physical Savings of Open Offices

Seventy percent of US businesses have embraced some form of the open office concept and not always because Google championed the ideal. At first glance, the plan seems to save money. One can push more employees into a smaller workspace, spend less on materials such as high walled cubicles or separate physical offices. 

Combined with initial projections of better teamwork and creativity, one can see why it grew so attractive to fad-following business types. Does the cost savings actually work in practice?

In most cases, no. Many businesses had to invest in workplace changes that created more private areas. One expert took research information on lost times and greater frequency of mistakes to create a “productivity tax” measure. 

He determined that in the priciest areas such as Silicon Valley, open office plans might make more financial sense, but not as much as envisioned. For most of the country not burdened with upscale California level real estate costs, it is more likely that a business loses money on the open office when its degenerative effects on the workforce come into play.

Given all of the takeaways from open plan office research, would you ever work in such an environment? Let us know in the comments what you think, and what your current office design is like.

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