The impact of open plan offices on employees

It’s generally accepted that open plan offices are more aesthetically pleasing than traditional offices, particularly when you have clients visiting who are able to see everyone working together in a nice space. However, many employers do not consider the detrimental effects that open plan office spaces can have. Research shows that employees who work in open plan spaces are underperforming compared to those who work in traditional offices. So what are the reasons behind this and what can employers do to combat these issues?

Together with United Carlton, experts in print management software, we examine the facts and figures surrounding this issue and discuss how businesses and employers can do more to promote productivity and happiness in the workplace.

Employee satisfaction

Open plan office spaces were originally implemented in order to cut costs; having fewer walls means that material costs will be lower. Additionally, having more open space meant that employees were more likely to share office equipment – in traditional offices, each person would typically have access to their own fax machine, printer and other office supplies. In an open plan office, workers are encouraged to share equipment, which again allows businesses to cut costs.

Modern open plan offices are designed to encourage workers creativity; the idea is that people in close proximity to each other are more easily able to share ideas. This element of socialization is often touted as one of the main benefits of open plan offices; many believe that workers will be happier if communication is encouraged – but unfortunately this is not the reality.

Karlstad University in Sweden conducted research which showed that workers employed in open plan offices demonstrated lower levels of job satisfaction and overall happiness compared to workers employed in traditional office spaces. Any business owners considering the benefits of open plan offices would surely presume otherwise – so what is the reason behind this?

Why open plan offices put workers at a disadvantage?

Many of us would agree that it can be nice to talk to colleges throughout the working day, however, if left unchecked this can turn into a significant distraction for both yourself and the person you are talking to. Each person has their own style of working, so becoming distracted by those nearby can potentially distract us from the task that we were working on and cause us to lose our focus. This is one of the main disadvantages of open plan offices – employees can become irritated by constant distractions and as they have no control over their environment, the distractions can easily pile up.

Another significant problem for open plan office workers is impromptu meetings. The frequency of these unplanned meetings can cause employees to fall behind on their work and potentially mess up an entire day’s schedule – this adds an extra level of disruption for workers.

Open plan offices can often feature music being played through a speaker or radio, which can be a huge distraction for employees, particularly when they have a specific task that they need to focus on. Each person is different and will have their own taste in music, which can be an issue if the office has a set playlist. To tackle this problem, some offices have been playing music as ‘background music’ – music played at a low volume so as not to affect workers productivity.

Open plan offices offer very little in the way of privacy, so employees can sometimes feel as though they are constantly being watched. This can lead to decreased risk taking, which removes the aspect of innovation and hampers the generation of new ideas. This can be a problem, particularly with larger offices where workers may not know every person. It is likely that workers would feel much more comfortable if they had access to their own private spaces where they have room for reflection and creativity. Implementing more private spaces within the office could result in more focused employees who are able to make better decisions for business.

Ask the experts

Architectural firm Tompkins has reportedly said that business owners who choose to implement open plan offices are always enthusiastic to start with, however, after just a few months “a good 50 percent” change their mind and decide to arrange a more traditional office space.

IPSOS and the Workforce Futures Team of Steelcase conducted research on an international scale, which showed that 85% of employees are dissatisfied with their working conditions and find it difficult to concentrate at work. Furthermore, 95% of people said that having a private space to work in was important and that this would help them to determine a good workplace. Just 41% of respondents reported that private space was something that they had at their current workplace.

Shockingly, 31% of respondents reported that they had to leave their office in order to get the required amount of work done. This could cause a number of stress related issues, as it disrupts the work-life balance.

Another study of over 10,000 workers found that employees lose 86 minutes of their working day as a direct result of workplace distractions, which can cause them to become stressed about completing their tasks on time and cause them to lose their motivation. Many workers admitted that their working environment makes it difficult to think constructively and limits their ability to be creative.

Work-life balance

The work-life balance is vital for workers, as it promotes overall happiness and productivity. Business must therefore strive to get this balance right for their staff members. As demonstrated, the layout of your office space can have a significant impact on employees, which could in turn affect clients. In 2016 and 2017, 46% of the 25.7 million days off work were caused by anxiety, stress and depression – these are important issues in the workplace and employers should take note if they want to encourage a more positive working environment.


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