Think Open Plan Offices are the Most Productive? Think Again

What co-working operators need to know

There’s no shortage of research offering insights into what constitutes the perfect office, or the best environment for productivity, or the most suitable setting for introverts. But are open-plan layouts really conducive to higher employee performance?

From large spacious corporate floors to business centre suites, the past few decades have seen a surge in the use of open-plan offices. While the concept came about much earlier, it seems the idea really took root in the 1960s as organisations woke up to cost-saving alternatives to cubicles and private offices – fewer partitions, less space, more people.

Of course open-plan layouts also allow managers to see what their staff are up to. There’s nowhere to hide.

But this design certainly isn’t a failsafe solution. Open-plan workplaces have been blamed for spreading illnesses, for an increase in staff sick days, for high blood pressure and even elevated stress levels. Not to mention, of course, constant distractions.

Is this exposure overload finally catching up with us?

According to a poll by WatchShop of 1,015 UK office workers, when asked in which environment staff consider themselves most productive, open-plan offices appeared at the bottom of the list with just 3% of votes.

That said, closed or individual spaces aren’t conducive to productivity either. Just 6% of respondents voted for private spaces.

“Plagued by insecurity”

Back in 2009, Dr Vinesh Oommen penned a research study for the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management. In it, he lay the blame for a whole raft of issues – such as loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, overstimulation and low job satisfaction – at the feet of open-plan work environments.

He claimed that workers in these environments are “plagued by insecurity” over their colleagues’ ability to see their screens and hear their phonecalls. In addition, high noise levels lead to “impaired concentration and low productivity”.

Even then, Dr Oommen found that organisations were able to save up to 20% in development costs by creating an open-plan office for staff. Some years later, his words still ring true.

“Workplace design must go beyond cost-saving to cater for the multifaceted social and psychological needs of employees,” he concluded.

As we head towards a future of increased collaboration, where higher productivity is seemingly promised to those with the most people clustered around a table, or the most chance encounters, it seems the concept of open-plan offices is only set to intensify.

It’s impossible to put a label on the perfect workspace – everyone has his or her own ideal ‘way of working’. And therein lies the solution. The perfect space is not necessarily open, or closed, or collaborative, or creative – but one that suits the unique personality of the person using it. The importance lies in performance; increasingly, motivation and productivity is tied to workplaces that have the ability to cater to individual employees’ needs.

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The question is, when will organisations start heeding this advice? Or are they simply happy to follow the well-trodden path of low-cost, high-volume offices? First, it seems a monumental shift is required in organisational culture. But money talks – and once the benefit of higher productivity and staff retention is clearly linked with intuitive workplace design, perhaps then the corporate world will recognise that the value of performance far outweighs that of square footage.