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Are open office spaces hurting workplace productivity?

More and more we’re seeing the modern workplace make the shift from a traditional, individualized office space design to something more open-concept and collaborative. Take a moment to Google a few innovative or up-and-coming companies in the communication or technology spheres. It’s very likely that one or more of these companies will offer a virtual tour of their office space for potential candidates, using words like “fun”, “innovative”, and “collaborative” to describe the working environment.

This shift is not something that has occurred purely based on esthetic preferences. It indicates an overall shift in the general perception on how workplaces should function and how employees should interact with each other. A lot of this has stemmed from the introduction of a new generation into the workforce – a socially-minded generation seeking innovation and collaboration. The Millennials.

This generation, which includes births from 1982-2000, brings a new set of perspectives and attitudes into the workforce—and also a number of challenges for the HR Professional. How do you create a successful employee engagement strategy when dealing with a diverse, multi-generational workforce with different needs? The answer to this question, and others, will be discussed more in depth in part two of this blog.

All in the name of collaboration?

In a recent survey entitled Workplace of the Future, an incredible 77 percent of respondents indicated that they are employing, or plan to employ, an open workspace with fewer (or no) enclosed offices. What has caused this sudden move to open workspaces? One of the leading factors behind this push is the idea that it encourages collaboration between co-workers and across departments within the organization.

However, as popular as this idea is, it is far from a “one size fits all” solution and there has definitely been a fair amount of debate on the topic in recent months. The next section of this blog will take a look some of the pros and cons to this type of office design and how it impacts employee engagement, productivity, and overall satisfaction.

The pros

  • Fosters communication and creates opportunities for collaboration: The initial idea behind an open-concept office space was that, by eliminating walls and barriers between workers, more collaboration opportunities would exist and everyone would become more effective at their jobs as a result. As the Bloomberg Businessweek Magazine put it, “it forces workers to talk to each other and triggers fruitful and surprising collaborations that wouldn’t have happened with everyone hunkered down inside their own four walls.”
  • More bang for your buck: As appealing as the first points seems, there’s no denying that a big factor behind the push for an open-concept office space is that it can potentially save a company a lot of money. By eliminating walls and enclosed offices, the overall workspace becomes more flexible and allows you to reduce the amount of space needed to accommodate everyone. This in turn translates into potentially significant cost savings.
  • Mission-oriented environment: Open offices often foster a “symbolic sense of organization mission”, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise (Source: The New Yorker). This can also significantly help the recruiting process. Keeping in mind that most Millennials are often drawn to “ultra-modern” office environments, having a sleek, creative, open workspace provides companies with a unique marketing advantage when recruiting younger talent (Source: TLNT).

The cons

So, by this point, you’re probably quite convinced that open offices are the way to go. I mean, who wouldn’t want a more collaborative, innovative, and creative working environment? Especially with the socially-minded multi-tasking Millennials making their way into the workforce. However, a growing body of evidence is suggesting that this philosophy is flawed. In fact, claims are being made that the open office actually undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve in the first place (Source: The New Yorker). Here are some of the cons of having this office space arrangement:

  • Loss of privacy: By eliminating the walls in your office, you also eliminate most of the sound or visual privacy from the workspace—workers are now able to see and hear everyone else in the office. While increased visibility and interaction is one of the contributing factors for this office arrangement, a new study reveals that employees are actually 50 percent less productive when they feel their visual privacy on their computer screen is at risk. Another study reported that more than half of open office workers are also dissatisfied with their level of “speech privacy”, making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere (Source: NY Times).
  • Lower employee satisfaction: Australian researchers who examined the preferences of 40,000 workers across the globe discovered that private offices “outperformed open-concept layouts” when it came to acoustics, privacy, and all-around satisfaction (Source: CBC). Another study monitored workers as they made the transition from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. Psychologists then compared worker satisfaction, stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition to after and found that the workers had suffered according to every measure (Source: New Yorker).
  • Decline in productivity: This is an inevitable consequence of decreasing employee satisfaction. Open-space office arrangements can greatly hinder an employee’s ability to focus on a task. With constant distractions, higher noise levels, and less privacy, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus independently on something. Diane Hoskins, executive director of a company who conducted some of these initial surveys, said that “Not only is the focus mode not functioning optimally in most office environments, we found statistical evidence that the effectiveness of collaboration, learning, and socializing suffers if the ability to focus is diminished.” (Source: Daily Mail)

The verdict

Despite the number of statistically-backed cons to this type of office arrangement, in the end it really comes down to the individual type of work your company is doing and the optimal workplace design needed to get that work done most effectively. In most cases, fully open workspaces do not recognize different working styles among their employees. A recent article from Forbes suggests that the solution to this is some kind of hybrid between collaboration and privacy:

There’s a time when you need to share information and collaborate, and there’s a time when you need to go away and do some deep thinking.”

Workers need an environment that is conducive to both of these needs. An optimal workspace would still provide workers with an opportunity to focus on collaboration through an open design, but also balance that openness with spaces that help workers to focus (Source: Smart Planet).

Do you work in an open-concept office space? We want to hear from you! What has your experience been working in that type of office environment? Do you find the space conducive to collaboration and innovation, or is it more of a distraction? Post your ideas in the comments section below.

Clear Path Employer Services
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Clear Path Employer Services

Certified HR consultants and medical professionals at Clear Path Employer Services
Clear Path Employer Services is a team of certified HR consultants and medical professionals dedicated to resolving the human resources and claims management challenges facing businesses across Ontario. The company was founded in 2003 by Anna Aceto-Guerin, a Certified Human Resources Professional (CHRP) specializing in WSIB claims management and NEER cost containment, with a focus on return-to-work programs and acquiring SIEF cost relief for employers. Read more
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One thought on “Are open office spaces hurting workplace productivity?
  • Cherryl Masters says:

    Have been wkg I’m open space office for 3 years. There are some benefits to forced interaction such as learning things you may not have otherwise known. However, being in a quad with four other colleagues in an open office is more challenging than beneficial. I have noise cancelling head phones, I have to book a mtg room to do any reading, and I have to disengage with colleagues who want to chat. The amount of energy required to ‘tune’ people out is amazing. I personally feel it decreases productivity.