Research on Open Office Workspaces Reveals Productivity Concerns

open officeThe open office design eliminates the dreary confines of cubicles and small offices, exposing employees to more light and serendipitous interactions. The visually appealing and modern floor plan is the antidote to the in-the-box thinking fostered by traditional enclosed working spaces. With natural light, convertible collaboration spaces, and conference zones, open office workspaces are believed to promote cross-functional collaboration and creative thinking.

In 2017, about 70 percent of U.S. offices had low or no partitions, according to the Chicago Tribune. Some companies are completely open, even in the C-suite. In many organizations, the open design produces the desired outcomes. Facebook’s Chief People Officer Lori Goler remarked about the company’s futuristic headquarters, “It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together. There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.”

But not every employee, company, or industry benefits from an open office design, as research during this decade increasingly reveals.

All of these benefits certainly do apply to many workers. Creative workers, in particular, thrive in environments that put them in closer contact with their departmental and organizational peers. However, several recent studies reveal that many high performing employees don’t like the open office arrangement. Without the privacy and distraction-free space they need to focus, their work suffers. For many companies with highly focused workers, open office spaces can have adverse effects on productivity, work quality, and even employee retention.

A 2017 often-cited survey by enterprise software strategist William Belk found that 58 percent of high performing employees (HPEs) need private workspaces for problem solving, and 54 percent say their open offices are too distracting. More than 700 anonymous survey respondents representing a diverse array of industries from software and IT to financial services, manufacturing, and even architecture were represented.

In short, Belk’s findings suggest that open floor plans prevent many of the most productive workers from doing their best work. Chaos kills their concentration. HPEs who spend hours engrossed in intellectually challenging problem-solving tasks “overwhelmingly need quiet and calm space,” Belk says.

A landmark 2014 study of more than 10,000 workers across 14 countries, funded by Steelcase concurs that inadequate privacy is a serious productivity concern. Of the survey’s respondents, 95 percent said being able to work privately was important to them. Yet just 41 percent could do so in their offices and 31 percent had to leave the office to complete work. In total, the survey concluded that office workers lose 86 minutes each day due to distractions.

Perhaps the most substantial research on the subject, a Journal of Environmental Psychology study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, cited in Inc., came to a similar conclusion. “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality)… Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”

So how are employers using this data to accommodate diverse workspace needs? Many have been offering work-from-home options to HPEs. At Imprimus Group, we are seeing more offices in DFW incorporate activity-based design, which offers privacy to workers who need to limit visual and auditory distractions, and stimulation to those who require continual collaboration and inspiration. Tomorrow’s best designs for many companies are likely to incorporate a mix of open, semi-private, and private spaces.

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