There are many reasons why open offices — often popular among startups and scaleups — make sense: They’re often more cost effective to rent and help certain teams collaborate more effectively. But I hate them.
Sure, open office plans can theoretically boost informal interactions between employees, with research suggesting that employees spend more time working on collaborative ideas, so you could forgive some tech companies opting for this setup.
While open offices sound great on paper, I’d like to argue they’re only good on paper. In my experience, open offices pose a huge distraction — especially if your work requires extreme focus and concentration — and the disadvantages far outweigh the purported benefits. And researchers seem to agree with me.
A new study by the NVAB, the Netherlands Society of Occupational Medicine, has found that open plan offices are noisy and bad for employees’ concentration and wellbeing. In addition to that, almost 60% of the people that participated in the study said open offices should be abolished. I can’t say that I blame them.
In the past, I’ve felt incredibly frustrated about colleagues having extremely loud — and personal — conversations, broadcasting their phone calls on loudspeaker, making inappropriate jokes, and yes, chewing too loudly. The lack of cubicles means there is a lack of privacy and the shortage of meeting rooms makes it even harder to have private conversations, and more importantly, get work done in peace.
No, your employees won’t interact more
More importantly, the link between open offices and interaction between employees seems to actually be a myth. A 2018 study by Harvard Business School found that open offices actually lead to a decrease in face-to face interactions between workers, with the number of emails and messages rising by more than 67% — presumably to avoid distracting colleagues by having conversations in an open plan setting.
Erwin Speklé, senior ergonomist behind the NVAB study, said workers should be provided with a minimum number of silent workspaces in order to reduce absenteeism in the workplace. So, instead of just putting people into a room and telling them to perform, companies and governments should consider creating adequate concentration spaces per employees (e.g. 1 for every 5 or 10).
I’ve often left offices feeling stressed, anxious, and exhausted after being distracted by colleagues, phone calls, and noise all day. Luckily, working from home has always been an option for me and one I chose when I wanted to get work done or meet a looming deadline.
Absenteeism vs presentism
Increasingly, companies are allowing employees to work remotely and to do so regularly, and while this comes with welcomed flexibility, the problem arises when workers feel forced to stay away from the office in order to get work done. Here the problem is two-fold: If you’re in the office, you are seen, but may not necessarily operate at maximum productivity. If you stay at home too often, you run the risk of management thinking you’re skiving when in actual fact you’re doing this in order to boost productivity.
Although companies are seemingly set on facilitating collaboration in the workplace, the need for individual work and concentration shouldn’t be overlooked. In fact, I’ve often found that when I can’t concentrate, I tend to withdraw more and communicate with colleagues less. I’ve also been that person who plugs in their headphones in a desperate attempt to focus on the task at hand, signalling increased indifference towards my colleagues (the NVAB also mentions that headphones are just a temporary ‘escape’ not a ‘solution’).
There’s nothing inherently wrong about open offices so long as they are built for this purpose, taking into account the need for adequate acoustics, private cubicles, meeting rooms, and lockers to keep personal belongings in. The problem is many aren’t.
It can be tempting for tech founders to opt for open spaces, but a lot more thought and consideration should go into the decision process because studies have long shown that an employee‘s dissatisfaction with their work environment is directly linked to a lack of job satisfaction and lower productivity.
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Published February 28, 2020 — 06:00 UTC