Open Plan Office Productivity: Studies & Research

Instructor: Nick Chandler
Do people work better if the walls come down and they work in one shared area? This lesson looks at the open plan office and the findings of research into whether this layout results in better employee productivity.

Personal Space

You're sitting in your car at the traffic lights and look across at the car next to you. Inside a woman is singing away without a care in the world. Why? Possibly being in one's own car gives a person a great sense of control and space. After all, we have a strong link to our surroundings and the need to feel comfortable in them.

But therein lies a dilemma for businesses: if a person is too comfortable in the office, might productivity drop? On the other hand, if a person is not comfortable, then is his or her performance going to decline? Let's find out if the open office layout is doing employees a favor or a disservice.

Trends in Office Layout

For more than half a century, most people had an office of their own or shared it with a handful of colleagues. It was a private space where you could close the door if you didn't want to be disturbed and things were done your own way.

In some organizations, the office size was a sign of status and the more windows you had in your office or the higher the level in the building, then the more you were seen as successful. However, things have changed.

Nowadays the majority of offices have an open floor plan or open office layout. This means that there are very few private offices and instead there are large open spaces, or shared work areas. You've heard of cubicles right? Only low partitions with no doors separate employees. Other plans can include simple long tables of computers and chairs.

Benefits

The origins of the open office layout began back in the 1950s. The concept made sense: bringing down the walls and having an open office would increase communication and reduce isolation or feelings of hierarchy. Brainstorming no longer had to take place in a scheduled weekly meeting since any idea you had could immediately be bounced off your colleagues.

The change to an open plan office was seen as an innovative move that would result in greater collaboration between employees and therefore greater productivity.

There is also a cost benefit to open plan offices, as they are cheaper to build and cheaper to heat or cool. Organizations can save up to 20% in costs when developing these types of offices, which also accommodate more employees than in a traditional office plan.

Findings From Studies

All the benefits sound great. So, has there been a significant increase in productivity? A lot of research has been done to test this very question.

Most of the studies found that the open plan office created more problems than it solved. Let's look at the findings in more detail.

Bad For Your Health

Dr. Vinesh Oommen, from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, was one of a group of Australian scientists who looked at all the recent studies into the open layout. They discovered that 90% of the studies indicated that an open office space resulted in high levels of stress, conflict, and high blood pressure.

In other words, the health implications alone indicate a potential decrease in productivity. Sick leave is greater as well, possibly from greater risk of germ transmission as well as added stress and high blood pressure making employees more prone to illness.

Oommen et al. also found that feelings of insecurity, a lack of status, and a high turnover rate were found in open plan offices. General job dissatisfaction was evident.

Interruption and High Noise Level

Steelcase, a producer of office furniture, commissioned a research firm (IPSOS) in 2016 to find out if the open office plan truly paid off. The sample was huge with more than 10,500 workers from Europe, North America and Asia. The study confirmed that the open plan office layout resulted in difficulties to concentrate and constant interruptions.

Some of the participants in the study (11%) had experienced greater privacy before the study and had been more satisfied with their workplace. As a result of distractions and interruptions, employees were losing an average of 86 minutes each day - resulting in a distinct decline in productivity.

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