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Open Plan Offices: Not All They're Cracked Up to Be

New psychology research claims that the drawbacks of open plan outweigh the benefits. Are walls due for a comeback?
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The business case for open plan offices is simple: They’re cheaper.

Without walls you can stuff more people into less space, saving on real estate costs. In addiiton, open plan advocates claim the free circulation of staff makes for more interaction and creative serendipity. But there are also downsides.  

These are equally clear to anyone who has ever worked in a an open plan office. They’re either noisy or deafeningly silent, neither of which is encouraging of conversation (especially anything sensitive or likely to make you sound foolish, like sharing half baked but promising ideas). Plus, that very quality of encouraging spontaneous interaction, translates to encouraging lots and lots of interruptions when you’re trying to concentrate. Hence the quip that 'headphones are the new wall' and the phenomenon of opening broom closets to find employees hunched inside working away.

So do the perks outweigh these serious drawbacks?

You may already have your own personal, answer, but psychologists recently attempted to answer the question with scientific rigor. The study surveyed 42,000 US office workers in 303 office buildings using an industry standard evaluation of satisfaction with working environment and came to a definitive conclusion -- claims that open office plans boost communication and team spirit are pretty much horse pucky. The British Psychological Society research Digest blog offers more details of the research:

Overall, workers in private offices were the most satisfied with their workspace. Workers in open-plan offices expressed strong dissatisfaction with sound privacy, and this was even more so the case in open-plan offices with partitions. This is probably because visual screens make ambient noise harder to predict and feel less controllable….

the key finding relates to whether the costs of lost privacy were outweighed for open-plan office workers by the benefits of ease of communication… analysis showed that scores on ease of interaction did not offset open-plan workers' dissatisfaction with noise and privacy issues in terms of their overall satisfaction with their workspace.

"Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants' overall work environmental satisfaction," the researchers concluded.

That’s a pretty firm answer, but is there anyway the open-plan office lovers can still justify their position? The study seems to assume an all-purpose, all-day office where workers are expected to do everything from take meetings to generate ideas and make calls. Many businesses are evolving away from this traditional model, either by breaking up their space into zones -- some offering privacy for concentrated work and some space for interaction --  or allowing their teaam members to break up their workweek, splitting not their space but their time between the office, a quiet corner at home and a coffee shop down the street (where the ambient buzz has been shown to increase creativity).

If you’re taking this piecemeal approach you may be able to realize the budgetary savings of open plan design without also incurring the costs in terms of worker satisfaction. Of course, this requires you to trust your workers to choose their own space and work when their not corralled like feedlot cattle into an easily monitored and controlled space.

Do you feel like the tide of popular opinion is turning against open plan offices?

Last updated: Aug 23, 2013

JESSICA STILLMAN is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.
@EntryLevelRebel




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