Too Close for Comfort? The Downside of Open Plan Offices

Too Close for Comfort? The Downside of Open Plan Offices

Collaboration, sharing ideas, boosting creativity, creating bonds – all of these are reasons that are typically given for having open plan workspaces. Sit next to your colleagues in an open plan office or cubicle, goes the reasoning, and productivity will rise. Not so, says new analysis by researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. In fact, as chronicled in this piece for the World Economic Forum  things may be so bad in an open plan office that you are really better ‘working remotely with your cat for company’. Ouch.

open-plan-office-014For many of us, the open plan model has existed for pretty much as long as we have been in the workplace.  Once upon a time (if you believe the scenario presented in shows like Mad Men which take place forty or fifty years ago), even fairly junior employees got actual offices with walls and doors and secretaries that sat outside them. Quaint. These days, the reality for the majority of office workers, even up to high middle management, is that you get some form of cubicle, or maybe a desk in an open plan office. ‘Hot desking’ – not having your ‘own’ desk with a space to put your kids’ pictures on or a drawer in which to stash your shoes in the winter – is also quite the trend these days. The reasoning is that we-are-all-friends-here and that it is more efficient to just grab whatever desk is available than to have designated spots for everyone.

The Auckland University researchers found a long laundry list of ‘employee social liabilities’ faced by those working in collaborative spaces.  Distractions obviously topped the list, but as well working in close physical proximity to others apparently also results in distrust and negative relationships. If you work close to someone you are apparently less likely to be friends with them, and you are more likely to think you are being well supervised by the manager who also works in proximity.  As for the idea of free and creative flow of ideas, that was not borne out by the data either.

The findings, which were based on a survey of 1,000 working Australians, are interesting and well worth pondering. These days, companies are struggling with how much to let employees work off-site as compared to in the office. For some workplaces everyone has to be present every day, but that is not always the case. Still, even when technology allows people to work elsewhere, there is often a deep distrust that they are going to get enough done. Out of sight of their supervisors, goes the theory, and they are probably cruising the internet or hanging out at Starbucks. The reality, however, is that they may be getting more done than if they were at work in their cozy little cubicle web.  Having their own offices, working with just one or two others, or working from home apparently produce more and better work than being in open plan offices.

No one is arguing that workers should never see each other or that they get more done if they spend most of their time isolated from one another. Many studies have shown that a bit of contact, whether in meeting rooms or around the photocopy machines, can yield great benefits. That is the real argument against allowing people to work from home although clearly there is room for something middle ground between the all-or-nothing model. Given that forcing everyone to hang together when they are at the office is apparently not yielding a lot of economic benefits, the researchers suggest that noise-cancelling headphones or walls of plants may be a good idea for some offices. As well, some simple courtesy towards co-workers might not go amiss.

It is an important thing for companies to get right. In the current economy, there is a huge need for productivity gains, as well as for keeping costs lean. That could mean cutting down on office space and shoving everyone together, or it could mean letting people work from home more frequently.  It could even mean putting up some walls, with the acknowledgement that sometimes good fences do indeed make good neighbors.



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