Open-plan office designs unpopular with
workers and can damage productivity



News: more than half of employees prefer a private work space, while open-plan office workers often experience too many distractions to work effectively, according to new data.

Research commissioned by British office equipment company Expert Market found that 54 per cent of workers would prefer to work in separate offices, while 65 per cent said that lack of natural light negatively impacted their mood.

"Employees reported that the open-plan design of many offices encouraged a negative sense of competition between staff and a hostile working environment that pitted colleagues against each other," said a statement from Expert Market.

"Peace and quiet came out top on the list of things which could improve employees' working day the most, with over 37 per cent of respondents preferring a quiet office over regular breaks and even cake," it added. "In the quest to boost team morale through a relaxed and less formal environment, companies may have achieved quite the opposite."

The report follows on from research published in September by office furniture specialists Steelcase and research company IPSOS, which found that insufficient privacy in the workplace was a worldwide problem.

The survey of 10,500 workers in Europe, North America and Asia found that over 85 per cent of employees were dissatisfied with their office environment and were struggling to concentrate.

Respondents were losing up to 86 minutes per day to distractions, and 31 per cent reported they had to leave their offices to complete their work due to lack of private space.

The 11 per cent of workers who had more privacy and were more satisfied with their workplace overall were also the most engaged.

Gensler US Workplace Survey 2013

Disengagement in the workplace and subsequent loss of productivity is currently estimated to cost American companies up to $550 billion and UK companies up to £70 billion a year.

The results formed part of a wider report in Steelcase's 360 magazine, which said that 70 per cent of office space in the USA was now open-plan in some form, while the amount of space designated to each worker has more than halved.

"We expected that in countries like China, which has a very collectivist culture, privacy might be less of a need than in countries like the United States, where individualism is prized. But what we discovered is that people all over the world want privacy at times," said Wenli Wang, who conducted Steelcase's privacy research in China. "In different cultures, they may seek it primarily for different reasons and in ways that are permitted in their culture, but the need for privacy sometimes — at work as well as in public — is as important to people as is the need to be with others."

Research released earlier this year by Canada Life Group Insurance also found that open-plan office workers were more than twice as likely to take sick days than home workers and were almost six times as likely to believe their working environment promoted stress.

Last year, Dezeen reported on a workplace survey by architecture firm Gensler, which found that new office technologies and a move towards collaborative, open-plan offices were damaging the performance of employees.

Workplace effectiveness in the USA had fallen by six per cent in just five years.

"Just because you can see your colleagues doesn't mean you’re going to collaborate with them," said Matthew Kobylar, regional workplace practice area leader at Gensler. "Open-plan is quite effective as a general space but there are times when you need to focus on collaboration, and it fails to support that."

  • spadestick

    Totally for this article. It is difficult to be productive when there is a disruptive boss walking by checking on your work, and disrupting you all the time by requesting that you join this meeting and that event.

    The best balance of this possibly exemplified in basecamp’s office premises and culture. They do not talk on the phone and treat their open-plan office like a library rather than an office. They steadfastly declare that large meetings are toxic.

    • iag

      Your concerns seem to be more with the behavioural issues of your boss/colleagues. Space of course can influence behaviour, but it doesn’t necessarily dictate it.

      Sounds like your place of work possibly has some cultural issues first and foremost. How does giving you a private office stop your disruptive boss from coming in and checking on you or requesting you join a meeting?

      Maybe have a chat with your boss about their disruptive behaviour? Or decline attending meetings because you have other work commitments? Or is that sort of behaviour not encouraged in your place of work?

      • spadestick

        Ha! Thanks for the concern. I am only stating an observance.

  • bonsaiman

    What is obvious will surface sooner or later.

  • dvac

    You know, at the end of the day I think this study is kind of silly. We’ve all heard convincing arguments for both sides of this debate, and I’d say that both types are legitimate models.

    As a designer or company executive you need to come to a conclusion about what is right for the company culture and needs. This study takes the idea that all offices have the same cultures and needs as a stable variable, and the idea that they are is what caused this kind of mess in the first place.

  • Dolly

    In other news, going to work is unpopular with most workers.

  • iag

    Exactly. No one shoe fits all. It doesn’t matter what is designed if the culture of the workforce doesn’t match the aspirations of the CEO or designer.

    If change is desired by leadership or the organisation as a whole, and one tool for doing so is a newly designed office, then a rigorous change of management program must run in tandem.