Office Style

How Open Offices Are Making Productivity Much Worse

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Over the last ten years, physical office space has undergone a radical transformation. Look no further then Google’s GooglePlex, Citigroup’s fully open Tribeca headquarters, or the open offices of snack maven Clif Bar. A decade ago, open offices were heralded as the next big thing in workplace productivity — they were supposed to increase communication, decrease office stuffiness, and make everything more “egalitarian.”

In some ways, open offices succeeded in breaking down barriers and increasing mobility, literally. According to a recent study by the University of Arizona, individuals working in open office environments felt less daily stress and “had greater daytime activity levels” than those in a closed cubicles. As a result, people who had greater activity levels in the office were 14% less physiologically stressed outside the office.

Related: Why Meditation Is The Next Big Productivity Tool

Another positive aspect of the open office plan is increased flexibility in your work space, which individuals value highly — sometimes it’s great to do work from a couch, telephone booth, or other secluded area. People actually love flexibility so much so that they’re willing to take a $7,600 pay cut for increased flexibility in the office. But for all the benefits of open office layouts, there are some major issues that have come to light over the last few years.

Phone and Relaxation Pods
Photo of Google Zurich. Photo by Peter Wurmli

First, it turns out that all of the movement, noise and distractions, aka noise pollution, that come with an open office plan actually decrease productivity and people’s ability to concentrate. A recent study proved that people in open-office plans “expressed strong dissatisfaction with sound privacy, and this was even more so the case in open-plan offices with partitions.”

Second, it turns out that people actually dislike being constantly bombarded with visual stimuli. In a study by Harvard University, students performed a study on employees at Fortune 500 companies and found that an open office plan actually decreased face-to-face communication by 73%, and increased email usage by 67%. For a concept that hinges on increased interaction and collaboration, those are harrowing statistics.

Open office plans also have the ability to increase sexism in the workplace, per a study conducted in the UK. The study observed the behavior of 1,100 government workers in the UK as they transitioned into an open office plan. Some of the observations are staggering — including the fact that women felt increased judgement and scrutiny on their appearance from male coworkers in an open office layout.

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Clearly, open office plans aren’t the catch-all solution they were heralded to be. With that said, offices are definitely still moving away from sterile white cubicles. So, what’s the next big trend in office spaces? Many believe it will be the “first-come first-serve” desk, where people can float to different desk spaces around the office. Offices like this will also be peppered with meeting rooms, quiet spaces, and other designated places for conversation — sort of a happy medium between the open office plan and the cubicle, or private office, layout.

Biophilic Office Design
Photo: Iwan Baan

Another office design we might see more of in the future is “biophilic design,” based off the biophilia hypothesis, which states that humans gravitate towards environments that mimic nature. This trend is based off a 2014 study published in the “Journal Of Experimental Psychology: Applied,” that said people’s feelings of well-being increase 40% when they were surrounded by plants and greenery. Amazon is leading the charge here, debuting two large plant-filled spheres at their headquarters in Seattle in 2018, which serve a dual purpose as green space for visitors and working space for employees. Increased numbers of pets in the workplace is another trend we’re starting to see more and more of, in the same vein as biophilic design. Who can argue with animals’ impressive ability to decrease stress?

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So, as we look forward to the rest of 2019 and beyond, keep your eye out for a decrease in open office layouts and movement towards the mobile desk and indoor greenery. Here’s to an abundance of office plants/dogs, and a decrease in noise pollution, this year.