Between exercise balls styled into office chairs and the word synergy, some wacky office trends have made their way through the modern workplace. But almost none have been as harmful and annoying as the open-office plan. Open-office plans replace cubicles with communal work areas featuring long tables or desks without divisions. When employers combine open offices with the hot-desking system, employees don’t even have an assigned workspace. Instead, they either reserve a spot or find one each morning, making them refugees in their own place of employment.
Open offices create stressed-out, unproductive, and unhappy employees. As the concept’s reputation worsens, it’s beginning to hurt recruitment and even retainment. For nearly any organization, the cost of lost productivity now outweighs any money saved in real estate.1
1. Open Offices Hurt Employee Engagement and Productivity
In the interest of blogging integrity, I must disclose that I’m not a neutral party when it comes to open offices. In fact, I have a personal and powerful distaste for them after working at a shared open table many years ago. One summer afternoon, as I typed away on my laptop, I heard a sharp clanging sound I couldn’t quite place. I looked up from my computer to discover my coworker, who sat only a few feet away from me, clipping his fingernails.
Sure, professional adults should know better than to clip their fingernails when they’re in viewing distance of their colleagues. But, as I learned the hard way, some don’t, and their colleagues shouldn’t have to suffer for it in the name of wall-free working. Across the globe, employees are learning the hard way about the importance of a private, quiet workplace.
For all of the lowly cubicle’s faults, it does a good job of absorbing sound. Without all those fabric-covered half walls, the open office has nothing to lessen the din of cell phone rings, gossiping colleagues, conference calls, pen clicking, mouse clicking, or, sigh, a neighbor’s fingernail maintenance. All that noise makes it hard to concentrate and actually complete tasks.2
Many people end up wearing headphones to drown out the noise, eliminating the chance for the collaboration that open offices were supposed to encourage. On top of that, employees in these spaces lose any sense of privacy. You don’t just constantly see your coworkers in an open office. They constantly see you.
The privacy problem is worse for women. British researchers found that many women whose workplace had switched to an open-office concept felt as though they were on display at all times and changed their make-up and clothing because of their new visibility.3 They also avoided spaces where mostly male employees sat to prevent men from judging their appearance. Female employees around the world now avoid their open offices altogether by working from home, hotel lobbies down the street, or in one case, the office basement.
2. Open Offices Make You Sick
A Scandinavian study found that employees in open offices take 62% more sick days than those in enclosed workstations do.4 The combination of sharing close spaces (and germs) and the wear on the immune system from the stress of open offices may result in a sicker, less productive workforce. Also, when offices institute hot desking, people are less likely to clean up after themselves, giving viruses and germs free rein to find their next victim.
3. Open Offices Hurt Retention
A study conducted at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia discovered negative outcomes for 90% of the open-office workers they surveyed. In fact, the head researcher said the plans caused “high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.”5 As the backlash against open offices continues, workers who are tired of wearing headphones and taking client calls in closets are starting to look elsewhere for employment.
In short, open offices stink. They’re bad for employees and bad for an organization’s bottom line. Luckily, if you’re redesigning your office’s plan, you don’t have to choose between dreary cubicles and productivity-stifling hot desks. Next week, we’ll give you some great alternatives that can work for everyone in your office.
1. Geoffrey James, “Open Office Plans Are a Lot Less Cost-Effective Than You May Think,” LinkedIn Talent Blog, February 16, 2016, https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/hr/2016/open-office-plans-are-a-lot-less-cost-effective-than-you-may-think.
2. Alison Green, “Privacy, Please,” Slate, January 21, 2019, https://slate.com/human-interest/2019/01/jobs-workplace-privacy-open-offices-cubicles.html.
3. Katharine Schwab, “The Subtle Sexism of Your Open Plan Office,” Fast Company, May 7, 2018, https://www.fastcompany.com/90170941/the-subtle-sexism-of-your-open-plan-office.
4. Pejtersen, Jan H, Helene Feveile, Karl B Christensen, and Hermann Burr, “Sickness Absence Associated with Shared and Open-plan Offices — a National Cross Sectional Questionnaire Survey,” Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health 37, no. 5 (2011): 376-82, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21528171.
5. Shane Borer, “Are Open-Plan Offices Bad for Work?” CFO Daily News, June 3, 2009, http://www.cfodailynews.com/are-open-plan-offices-bad-for-work.