October 6, 2016

Are open plan offices falling out of fashion?

Open plan living, open plan offices – it’s how we like to live our lives these days. Or is it? Lots of research has been conducted in the past few years that indicates that open plan offices are not what they were cracked up to be.

Employees are complaining that they are too noisy and that it is hard to get through work without constant interruptions. Those working in an open plan space say they need easy access to more private areas where they can go to concentrate for an extended period of time without being distracted by noise or other people.

Some employers have listened to what their employees are saying. That doesn’t mean that walls, doors and corridors have been resurrected and that individual offices are back in vogue. Instead, organisations are creating spaces where employees can go if they need space or privacy. This could take the form of quiet zones or soundproof rooms or rejigging floor plans so that they are a bit more broken up.

In this way, the workplace is still largely open plan, but with the facility for employees to secrete themselves away when needs be.

Open plan offices really took off during the dotcom era. They epitomized the modern way of working. The thinking was that fewer physical barriers (ie walls, doors and corridors) meant that people could work more openly and collaboratively. This shift in design also suited the general trend to a more collaborative and less hierarchical way of working. No more managers presiding over their team from a distance and behind closed doors.

Also, open plan offices enable organisations to squeeze more people into a space and reduce floor space and build costs. When the book ‘The Physical Environment of the Office: Contemporary and Emerging Issues’ was published in 2001, it claimed that 70% of offices had gone open plan.

However, downsides to this new layout soon emerged and they were not just limited to noise and privacy issues. Sickness – and therefore absence rates – rose due to open plan working. A Swedish study conducted in 2014 found that people working in open plan environments were twice as likely to take sick days as those working in a more traditional environment. Now that statistic is a cause for concern for HR and employers.

The study corroborated other pieces of research in that many of the participants complained that concentration levels are affected by having people constantly around them. According to a report called ‘The Privacy Crisis’ by furniture and workplace designers, Steelcase, “too much interaction and not enough privacy had reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers’ creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing”.

Not that Steelcase’s study was advocating a return to the traditional workplace. Instead, it said that employers need to strike the right balance between having an open, collaborative space and providing the means and opportunities for employees to work more privately when they need to. When Steelcase asked research organisation IPSOS to survey more than 10,500 workers across Europe, North America and Asia, the results showed that inadequate privacy in the workplace is a global issue. Of those participants, 11% were highly satisfied with their work environment. What did they say about it:

– can concentrate easily 98%
– can freely express and share ideas 97%
– can work in teams without being interrupted 95%
– can choose where to work within the office, based on their task 88%
– feel relaxed and calm 95%
– feel a sense of belonging to their company and its culture 97%

HR needs to help employers and employees strike the right balance.