The Open Office Workplace Provides Mixed Results

The open office is no longer a new concept, and workplace effects are now obvious. Originating in Germany in the 1950s, it didn’t become common in the United States until the last decade. Now, however, 70 percent of the workforce in this country works in an open office.

Some of the intended benefits have been achieved, such as lower overhead costs, a shared sense of mission, an easier environment in which to collaborate, and a more congenial atmosphere. Some organizations have found that open-office environments increase community, facilitate distribution of information, and break down barriers between management and workers. For new-to-work staff, it can help speed their learning as they watch and listen to more experienced staff.

However, while they may facilitate more conversation, studies show that the talk is often not serious business-related idea-sharing, which still happens mostly in closed spaces. Noise of all kinds—human, machine, and general background—prevents the focus needed for high-level cognitive processing. Other negative effects include overstimulation and lack of privacy, which lead to increased stress and increased illness. Absenteeism jumps 62 percent in an open-office environment. Another recently discovered result is that memory suffers when workers change locations frequently. Studies show that a brilliant idea may only be recalled in the setting where it occurred, and that memory is especially affected by “hot desking,” where employees do not have a permanent space and constantly move themselves and all their equipment. The end result, according to a news item on BBC.com, is a 15-percent decrease in productivity.

While the open-office concept facilitates the kind of connection that Millennials are said to appreciate, the next generation to flood the workplace, Generation Z, values privacy, independence, quiet environments where they can focus, and natural light.

While it is highly unlikely that the era of the private office for everyone will return, workplaces need to creatively balance the need for collaboration with privacy and ability to focus. Some best practices include:

  • Provide enough private spaces so people can easily reserve them and are not met with judgment for retreating to them;
  • Encourage 15-minute breaks for every hour of concentrated work for maximum productivity;
  • Ask all employees to turn off beeps, buzzes, and notification sounds from their devices; and
  • Pay attention to acoustics, including installing cushion-backed tile or carpet, which absorb three times more sound than hard flooring.

As with all workplace trends, there are both benefits and drawbacks. These tips can help you get the most out of the open office until the next trend comes along.