Are Open Plan Offices Bad for Us?

Posted in : HR Updates on 14 June 2017
Olga Pollock
Phoenix Natural Gas Ltd

After watching Barry Phillips’ TEDx Holyhead talk on ‘Why it’s time to ditch the open door policy in the workplace’, I started to think about open plan offices in the same vain.

From my research, I found that while open plan spaces were initially designed back in the 1950s to aid workplace collaboration, there is very little evidence to actually back this up. In fact, I was bombarded with descriptions such as ‘antisocial’, ‘bad for our health ‘, ‘increases stress’, ‘less satisfaction’ and even how open planned offices are ‘bad for our brain’.

The Telegraph describes how ‘modern offices can lead to a 32% drop in workers well-being and reduce their productivity by 15%’. And while people do talk to each other more, BBC Capital says that employees talk more about non-work stuff with staff tending to book a meeting room for work-related discussions.

Yet according to Chron.com, they do have some advantages. Chron describes how ‘a lack of walls or other physical barriers in open-plan office spaces makes it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis’. This leads to a sense of camaraderie and improves teamwork and information-sharing. Colleagues have the freedom to seek advice without having to schedule meetings or knock on doors. They add how ‘interactions in an open-plan office space generally are more frequent and informal than in closed environments where everyone has a separate office space’.
http://smallbusiness.chron.com/advantages-disadvantages-openplan-office-space-80288.html

The reported disadvantages, however, far outweighed Chron’s positive outlook. In their article on hot-desking and open plan offices, the Guardian summarises findings from a recent Australian study which found that the open plan trend may actually be making employees more irritated, suspicious and withdrawn. It went on to describe the ‘distractions, lack of cooperation, distrust and negative relationships. More surprisingly, both co-worker friendships and perceptions of supervisor support actually worsened’. The research found that friendships were better quality when employees had their own office, shared with one or two others or better still, worked from home. 

The Telegraph warns that while open plan offices create a lack of privacy and too much noise they may also be bad for our health. The article outlines how staff are more prone to catch the flu, therefore impacting on productivity and wellbeing.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-business/10665747/Open-plan-offices-suck.-Why-people-are-finally-waking-up-to-it.html

In a subsequent article, the Telegraph reports on how open-plan offices can not only make us physically ill but that they can add to increased levels of stress and aggression among staff with ‘High levels of stress and conflict, elevated blood pressure, and rapid staff turnover’ being associated with open-plan environments.

So why are so many offices open plan considering there seems to be little evidence to support their benefits? The reason seems to relate mainly to cost. The above Telegraph article outlines how 20 per cent in development costs are saved when creating an open plan work environment. But the article warns how ‘workplace design must go beyond cost-saving to cater for the multifaceted social and psychological needs of employees’. A compromise may be quiet rooms and closed spaces where staff can go when they need to focus. Other alternatives include closed spaces for small teams and even the use of technology to track the quietest spot in the room!
http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170105-open-offices-are-damaging-our-memories

Perhaps though, the most common sense advice is from Forbes who recommend that ‘a better solution to the debate may simply be that employees need the ability to find what works best for them, for the team, and for the company’.

This article is correct at 14/06/2017
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Olga Pollock
Phoenix Natural Gas Ltd

The main content of this article was provided by Olga Pollock. Contact telephone number is 07845 147030 or email olgapollock@googlemail.com

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