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.

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