Open plan offices are bad for business

Linda Lai

To maximize attendance at work, open plan offices are not the way to go.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increased desire among employees to adopt a hybrid working model. Incorporating both office and remote work.

Many employees experience better flexibility, fewer distractions, and higher productivity when working from the home office. Yet, some employees and managers prefer to work from the office. Arguing that physical presence is important for building organizational culture and facilitating effective communication and collaboration.

Create better workplaces

Many managers who are work office enthusiasts try to regulate attendance through strict rules on how often and when an employee is permitted to use the home office. Coercion is however unlikely to be effective in motivating employees and fostering a stimulating work environment.

To maximize attendance at the work office, companies should consider how the work environment can be improved to make it as appealing for employees as possible. Beating the convenience and benefits of remote work.

However, many organizations do the opposite. Individual offices are increasingly being converted to large-scale open plan offices and meeting rooms. More and more employees come to work to find that their office is removed and that they are placed in free seating in an office landscape with small work desks.

The main argument for open plan offices is, of course, cost. Offices that remain unused part of the time signal as waste of resources, while fully packed office landscapes give a veneer of efficiency. But are open plan offices actually cost-effective?

The research is clear

The research in this area is clear: open plan offices have significant negative effects for employees as well as organizations. And this insight is not new.

Open plan offices result in lower performance, especially for tasks that require concentration and memory.

Moreover, open plan offices result in less, not more, interaction and face-to-face communication. The interaction also becomes less meaningful and job-relevant. To speak face-to-face, many choose to leave the offfice to not interrupt others or avoid being overheard.

Researchers Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber point out that employees in an office landscape often create a "fourth wall" between themselves and others by mentally disconnecting. Typically, with the help of headphones.

The fourth wall reduces possible distractions and provides better opportunities for concentration. The fourth wall also gives an illusion of working alone and undisturbed. Furthermore, it helps signal that one does not want to be interrupted to communicate with others.

In many office landscapes, the majority of employees have built a fourth wall. In other words the fourth walls has become a culture. And this culture comes at a cost. Maintaining the fragile fourth wall demands mental energy and is stressful and exhausting for many, especially over time.

Open plan offices therefore cause increased levels of stress and often a significantly higher rate of sick leave. This also applies to two-person offices. Perhaps increased leave is also partly a sign that many employees feel compelled to "take a few days off at the home office" when it is not formally permitted.

Are open plan offices cost-effective?

Even though office costs decrease with open plan offices, there is good reason to question whether the total balance sheet is in the black. The research in this area is extensive, and the results strongly suggest that the costs associated with open plan offices are substantially higher than the benefits. Both in terms of productivity and the psychological wellbeing and health of employees.

In order to get more employees to prefer the workplace office, open plan office spaces are therefore not the way to go.

The renowned researcher and organizational psychologist Adam Grant summarizes the findings from a series of research studies as follows:
«The evidence is clear: open plan offices are bad for people and organizations. For the sake of health, productivity, and collaboration, let's design spaces with doors.”

And Grant is not referring to the fourth door.

A Norwegian version of this text was published in Dagens Næringsliv: https://www.dn.no/ledelse/ledelse/kontorleie/hjemmekontor/kontorlandskap-neppe-verd-besparelsen/2-1-1369429

Published 22. February 2023

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