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Why Open Floor Plans May be Detrimental to Productivity

Since the early 2010s, more and more research studies and articles have been popping up about the negative impacts that open floor plans create in an office. While touted as being the key to collaboration, innovation, and equality, thus combating individualistic office culture, open offices also come with their own host of problems. In fact, these offices have been found to frequently exacerbate the problems that they claim to fix, while also creating new ones. 

When one thinks of an open office, a fully open floor with desks and no walls separating them is probably what comes to mind. They tend to look a lot like high school cafeterias, and while this is one form of open floor plan, it’s not the only one. 

For the sake of this post, we will be defining “open floor plan” as a space where employees are required to share their working environment with no walls or doors separating them. So, two or more people sharing an office counts as open.

Pros

Those who are pro-open office often claim that they can increase collaboration, not just within teams, but cross-team collaboration as well. They also claim that these kinds of floorplans promote an equal workplace, if everyone is all working on the same floor, and no one has a private office, then everyone is equal. 

Additionally, managers supposedly have better overview of their teams, as employees can be monitored more easily. On the flip side, employees will solve disputes and work together rather than always going through their managers, thus saving time and lightening managers’ workloads. Finally, these kinds of floor plans can also be more cost-effective as they allow employers to fit more employees in a smaller amount of space.

Cons 

This brings us to the negative side of open floor plans. A study conducted by the Harvard Business Review found that for employees whose offices had converted from closed to open floor plans, face-to-face interactions decreased by as much as 70 per cent. Digital interactions however, increased by as much as 50 per cent.

What this and many other studies have found is that open floor plans actually cause people to withdraw from one another. Yes, humans are social creatures, but only to a point, and the lack of privacy and quiet space means that people try to create these things for themselves. This may mean putting up mental barriers to block out or ignore colleagues, as well as wearing headphones or earplugs, or bringing their work elsewhere so they can hide from their colleagues. 

These mental barriers that people create between themselves, and their colleagues can have real negative effects on a person’s mental health. The energy required to maintain mental barriers can be exhausting, and can lead to negative health outcomes, giving rise to workplace absences due to illness. It is also well-known that physical illnesses such as viruses thrive in open office settings, as was proven by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Studies have found that most face-to-face interactions in open offices are superficial, people are reluctant to have conversations for fears of disturbing their colleagues, and meaningful conversations occur far less frequently as well, as people don’t want to voice their genuine thoughts or opinions for fear of being judged. 

This brings us to the fact that like a high school cafeteria, open floor plans are noisy, full of distractions and not conducive to productivity. Employees face sensory overload, an increase in uncontrolled interactions, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. In addition, while all employees are impacted by this, the negative impact is even more strongly felt among disabled employees, as those who are neurodivergent or who have a visual or hearing impairment are left working in offices that are designed to be openly hostile to their needs. 

Overall, while many claim that open offices are positive and cost effective, as stated by the BI Norwegian Business School, “The research in this area is extensive, and the results strongly suggest that the costs associated with open plan offices are substantially higher than the benefits. Both in terms of productivity and the psychological wellbeing and health of employees.”

Lauren Schwartz | Staff Writer

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