The Open Plan Office Trap: Why It Pays To Work Alone

There is a prevailing notion that open plan offices foster open communication among staff and make for a livelier workplace. But they are also facing a backlash as people begin to realise their shortcomings. We take a deeper look at the pros and cons of open plan offices and why working alone is underrated.

Open plan office image from Shutterstock

If you visit the offices of most start-ups, chances are you'd be greeted with wide open spaces where some people don't even have their own desks (hot-desking is so hot right now, natch). Gone are the ugly cubicles that had been an institution in offices for so long. The walls have been removed so that people can freely exchange ideas that could possibly change the fortunes of their companies.

It's no wonder larger organisations are now in favour of open plan offices as well. They want to facilitate those office conversations that get the creative juices flowing and lead to innovation that could improve their businesses.

Not only that, open plan layouts can reduce costs associated with buying and installing office furniture, equipment and utilities. Fewer walls equates to less time and materials required in putting together an office space as well as lower utility bills thanks to improved airflow for more efficient air conditioning. This arrangement also makes it easier for companies to make space for new workers.

So there are some business advantages to ditching the cubicle, but an open plan office isn't this perfect work paradise where everything just works seamlessly together.

One of the things open plan offices emphasises is teamwork. Everybody is a special snowflakes with unique ideas that should be shared among co-workers. Because two heads are better than one, so the logic is by combining the minds of a group, you'll essentially have a supercomputer that is able to tackle any challenges it faces. By removing the cubicle walls, even the most timid employees will be able to contribute to the open dialogue in the office and become part of the collective for the betterment of their organisations.

However, there is a fatal flaw in this assumption: teamwork is not always effective. In a study of 600 computer programmers at 92 companies cited in the book Transforming Businesses: Big Data, Mobility, and Globalisation, it showed that workers valued solidarity. People from the same companies performed at roughly the same level, but that there was an enormous performance gap between organisations.

According to the study, the companies that ditched the open office structure in favour of private workspaces were leading the pack in terms of squeezing out productivity from its employees. Of the top performers, 62 per cent said their workspace provided enough privacy for them to just get on with the job without much interruptions. Only 19 per cent of the worst performers indicated they had the luxury of privacy.

This aligns with a 2014 study that surveyed 10,000 workers from across 14 countries specifically on open office arrangements. A whopping 95 per cent of employees craved more privacy at work but only 40 per cent were afforded this luxury. The study, done by research firm IPSOS and commissioned by office furniture maker Steelcase, showed 85 per cent loathed their organisation's open plan offices. In fact, 31 per cent of respondents leave the office to get their work done and workers are losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions that inevitably arise in an open plan office.

"The drive for collaborative working spaces was founded on getting people working better together," Bostjan Ljubic, vice president of Steelcase UK and Ireland, said at the time when the research was released. "It has been enormously successful and has delivered efficiency on a major scale but too much interaction and not enough privacy has reached crisis proportions, taking a heavy toll on workers' creativity, productivity, engagement and wellbeing."

Now we have to take his statement with a grain of salt given that his company is probably losing money from open plan offices that require less furniture. But what he said is not without merit. People value privacy when they are working. Not everybody is a social butterfly and most people value time to be alone in order to recharge, free from distractions.

Solitude is undervalued in the workplace. How often are you told to emphasise the fact that you're a "team player" when you're writing your resume or going to a job interview? Employers want to foster an inclusive culture, so it's understandable that they want to hire people who can work in a group environment. But being able to get things done independently is an important part of being a good worker. Even brainstorming sessions, the quintessential activity that demonstrates teamwork, is better when you have a chance to go through ideas alone first.

Without any barriers between employees, everybody is in each other's faces during the work day and there is very little chance of having time alone with your own thoughts. This could take a toll on your mental health as well.

"Solitude isn’t just a professional plus; it’s also good for your mental and emotional well-being. To get the most out of life, you must learn to enjoy spending time alone," Dr Travis Bradberry, an expert in emotional intelligence and office psychology. He believes it's important for people to learn to work alone as a means to recover from daily stress, build up your self esteem and develop emotional intelligence.

Being able to work autonomously can be rewarding. We're not saying you should hole yourself up like a hermit, away from your pesky co-workers, all the time. But when you're in an office, having some alone time is beneficial for a productive and healthy work life.

Do you work in an office with an open floor plan? Do you love it or hate it? Let us know in the comments.


Comments

    As a software developer myself, I agree that the open plan office is not conducive to being productive while coding. However, this study only focuses on programmers. Perhaps offices with a different kind of focus would still benefit from the open plan?

      Hi there, Ogre.

      Yes, the first study focuses on programmers, but the second study covers a broad range of worker across different industries.

      Agree that open plan offices may work for some organisations. For creative industries such as advertising, there is probably some value in being able to throw ideas at each other all the time. But the article simply highlights that open plan offices shouldn't be used as a prescriptive solutions for organisations looking to boost productivity and creativity.

      Hope this helps!

      Thank you.

      Kind Regards,

      Spandas

        In our office it works in that you can fire of a question and get a response quickly an easily. But on the downside when going over hundreds of pages of schematics hearing everyone in the background disrupting your train of thought it doesn't. It's a very double edged sword.

    The decisions to go or maintain open plan are normally taken by people with nice corner offices and no chance of them copping the downside of the decision.

    I personally hate them. My last office held over 150 people in one room and the ambient noise tipped around the 85dB mark most days.

    Working in an IT role with an open plan office I found 2 common solutions implemented around me are headphones and working remotely. If someone needs to "get stuff done" the headphones are the first port of call to let people know you're too busy to talk about non-essential items. If that doesn't work people will book rooms, go out on site or work in their home office to "make it happen".

    Except for when you need to get stuff done - I find an open plan office a fairly good place to work.

    “The drive for collaborative working spaces was founded on getting people working better together,” Bostjan Ljubic, vice president of Steelcase UK and Ireland, said at the time when the research was released.

    Not sure that's true. I'd say it was based on cost-cutting, by packing more people into the same space. The idea that it fosters collaboration is just window dressing.

    It's also an idea that extroverts find appealing. It's a little more difficult and challenging for introverts to have people in your face all day.

    I worked in one OP office that was designed pretty well -- much better than I expected, actually. There weren't many straight lines, we each had generous desk space, and they'd really made an effort to minimise noise.

    OTOH, I'm moving to a NEW and REFURBISHED office in a few weeks, which is OP all the way. It looks pretty but I suspect noise will be a big issue -- doesn't look like they've paid much attention to noise dampening.

    I have always found open plan offices disruptive to work. I found a really good description of the issue and suggested solutions in the book "Peopleware"by DeMarco and Lister.
    It was released in the late 80's and the same reasoning still applies. Open workspace is considered a management anti-pattern, especially for IT workers but generally for any office. It is an idea that keeps coming back despite all the research showing that it is the worst possible layout for knowledge workers.

    The problem with open plan is that it is applied to everyone everywhere (except higher management of course). There is little to no consideration as to who needs to work in a team and who doesn't and what kind of work people that sit next to each other do. You can't have someone that's on the phone all day talking to clients sitting right next to someone that's doing highly technical or solitary type work. It's ridiculously distracting and counter productive. One of the biggest challenges at my organisation in terms of space is meeting rooms, there aren't enough, people crave being able to go in a room and discuss things with others with some sort of privacy but there's too many of us wanting to do that, so instead people fight over rooms and others just end up having loud distracting conversations at their desks because they can't get meeting rooms.

    Another issue is privacy. The amount of times I've heard people's personal details when applying for loans, trying to get doctor's appointments, etc. is ridiculous. And no don't tell me oh you shouldn't do that during work time, there's no other time, the damn banks and doctors are only open during the hours we work. I'm not taking a day off to book an appointment. It's not just personal stuff either, I've heard my managers discussing other team members and issues because there is nowhere else to go and talk about these things.

    A simple solution would be to have phone booths with a deskphone and a little desk to take a notebook and somewhere to charge a mobile if you have one. That way people can step away from their desks but still have what they need and get some much needed privacy.

    When open plan offices were introduced it was my worst nightmare.

    Due to the sheer amount of noise, including idiotic gossip, I found it impossible to even think, let alone be productive.

    Now, before taking on a contract that requires me to be present in the customer's office, I ask to see the workplace. If it is open plan, I usually arrange to work for home or just reject the assignment and move on.

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