Surveys Reveal Open Plan Offices Reduce Productivity

WHY GO OPEN PLAN?

Theoretically, there are good reasons to move to an open plan office. Our social environment plays a big role in our ability to be proactive and motivated. And success in modern workplaces is often driven by how well individuals interact with each other and with the organization.

Research has shown that the time employees spend on “collaborative activities” has ballooned by more than 50% in the past two decades. The design of the workplace significantly influences this, by supporting or detracting from interdependent work.

PRIVACY AND CONCENTRATION ARE CRITICAL

Despite the pursuit of collaboration in workplaces, or perhaps as a result of it, the need for concentration and focused individual work is also increasing. And research shows that when employees can’t concentrate, they tend to communicate less. They may even become indifferent to their coworkers.

Knowledge work requires employees to complete specific tasks by gathering, analyzing, and making decisions using multiple sources of information. When any of these cognitive processes are interrupted, inefficiency and mistakes increase.

Being able to focus on a task without interruption or distraction is an essential foundation for effective work. But poor design can have unintended consequences – increasing the cognitive load on workers through high density or low privacy, both of which increase distraction.

WHY OPEN PLAN DOESN’T NECESSARILY LEAD TO COLLABORATION

In many open plan offices, the drive for increased interaction and collaboration comes at the expense of the ability to focus and concentrate. When distraction makes it hard for employees to focus, cognitive and emotional resources are depleted. The result is an increase in stress and errors, which undermines performance.

A study by the Academy of Management, published online on October 11, 2018, suggests that increased crowding in the workplace and low levels of privacy lead to defensive behaviors and strain workplace relationships. It also found that an aesthetically pleasing environment may offer a restorative experience. 

In addition to supporting these findings, a survey of more than 10,000 workers conducted by file-sharing company WeTransfer discovered a surprising result—the importance of silence in the workplace. This survey found that a quiet environment was the most important requirement for creative people to do good work, followed by a neat, tidy space (32%), coffee (32%), and sunshine (30%). 

GETTING THE BALANCE RIGHT

Many employers are heavily focused on driving collaboration and interaction at the expense of privacy and concentration. This has negative outcomes for both productivity and work relationships. Organizations need to focus on providing workplaces that support the requirements for privacy and focus, as well as interaction and collaboration. Greater emphasis should be placed on both visual and auditory privacy, particularly the use of acoustic treatments, as well as the layout and appearance of the workplace as a whole.

Excerpted from an article by Libby Sander, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University, posted on Fast Company 7.19.18. 

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