Why Open Office Plans Often Don’t Work

 

Open offices are all the rage these days. Cost-effective and millennial-friendly, they seem to have all but taken over office spaces the world over. It almost seems like doing away with the conventional cubicles of yore in favour of large communal desks has become a litmus test of apparent adaptability.

The near-total removal of partitions promised a host of purported benefits, including fostering better collaboration, flattened organisational hierarchies, and improved communication flows.

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As most open office adoptees would attest, though, that’s exactly the problem. Eliminating partitions in workspaces also means taking away privacy, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s why open office plans are often counterproductive and detrimental to overall performance.

 

Less boundaries = More distractions

The more casual office atmosphere ushered in by the open office era seems to have enforced the normalisation of constant distractions. In an era when attention spans are shorter and more fragmented than ever before, this is cause for serious concern.

Picture this. In the interest of maximising your productivity, you’ve planned your days out to the T, even going so far as to calibrate your schedule to suit your bodily rhythms. Mornings seem to be when you’re most productive, so you intend to stretch them by working on your hardest tasks then.

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The moment you sit down at your desk in the open office, though, you’re continuously bombarded with a slew of distractions that make it hard for you to enter (and stay) in the zone.

Co-workers talking over your head as if you weren’t there. People holding impromptu standing meetings near your desk that were supposed to last 5 minutes but stretched to 15. You’ve never noticed just how annoying your colleagues’ desk habits can be, but now it’s driving you up the wall.

 

More distractions = Lower productivity

Open offices are just plain noisy; too noisy for you to fully focus on your work without plugging in your headphones and shutting out the world around you.

It’s not just you. Research has found that the most common gripe against open office is the amount of noise it enables. A certain amount of background noise can actually facilitate higher concentration and creativity, but too much of it makes work too disruptive. Studies have shown that noisy environments impair cognitive functioning by:

  • Making it harder to recall things you need and want to remember
  • Obstructing creative thinking
  • Accustoming you to constant multitasking, which increases your susceptibility to getting easily distracted in the long run
  • Overstimulating your senses. On top of the noise, open offices also give you more visual distractions at any one time

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It’s why some people are more productive when they work at a cafe or a co-working space than when they’re at their desks. Studies have even suggested that the lack of privacy in open offices contributes to lower job performance, less creativity, and lower productivity.

 

More distractions = Less collaboration

Because of the amount of distractions an open office provides daily, people often put on noise-cancelling headphones to focus. This, though, defeats the whole purpose of an open office.

Removing partitions was meant to foster the kind of organic collaboration essential to bottom-up innovation, cross-pollination of ideas, and more synergistic teamwork. The noisier the environment, though, the more people tend to find ways to isolate themselves.

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The more people shut themselves off from one another, the less time they’re spending collaborating. A recent Harvard study, for instance, found that open office plans resulted in:

  • 73% less face-to-face time
  • 67% more email and chat usage
  • 4 hours less collaborative time every day

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