The Truth About Open Plan Offices - Do They Really Work?


Open-plan modern office with busy employees

Love them or hate them, you’ll find open-plan offices everywhere. The open-plan office style became popular two decades ago. In a pursuit to provide a more productive and collaborative work environment, the cubicle walls came down, and the managers moved out of their offices. But is the open-plan office layout really working? New research and feedback from employees reveal open offices might not be the most effective way to work.      

What Is an Open Plan Office? 

An open-plan office is a layout designed to increase collaboration and productivity. Most open-plan office spaces will have a boardroom and individual meeting rooms. Majority of the work takes place in the open-plan space, with employees seated in the same room. 

The Benefit of Open Plan Offices

The main reason for adopting an open plan office design is cost. An open-plan office is around one-third of the price of individual offices with fewer materials and much less space required. But there are other valid reasons for going open plan.  

Better Communication

For many people, an open plan office encourages discussion between workers. Research has shown that in the past 20 years, employees are spending 50% or more time on ‘collaborative activities’. With no office walls, it’s easy to see when a colleague is available for a chat.    

Reduce Corporate Hierarchy

With many managers choosing to sit in an open-plan office rather than behind a door, employees can feel management is more approachable. Open-plan makes sense when there are more workers on the same level, reporting to one senior manager. 

Job Satisfaction and Support

Open-plan offices encourage employees to work as a team. They may arrange desks in a group so team members face each other or they join their desks side by side. Collaborating and working as a team allows for better problem solving, knowledge transfer and skills to gain a better outcome. Well-connected workers have better opportunities for passing on knowledge and skills. Studies have found that when employees work together as a team, there are higher levels of job satisfaction because there is a shared sense of purpose through working towards a common goal. 

Cons of Open Plan Offices

Ask any open-plan office worker and they will no doubt have a few cons about their open plan office. 

Most Collaborative Activities Aren’t Value Adding

Research shows increased time spent collaborating with colleagues isn’t leaving enough time for critical work. Around 20-35% of the value-added collaborations was coming from only 3-5% of employees. The rest of the employees might as well switch their conversation from work to what they’re doing on the weekend. 

Noise and Distractions

Some people need a quiet space to do their best work. The main issue of an open-plan office is the noise and distractions created by surrounding colleagues. It takes discipline to not listen in to colleagues’ conversations or start your own discussion. 

Often it’s not just the noise of colleagues workers have to contend with. The kitchen area may be in the middle of the office with a coffee machine and microwave contributing to the noise. 

Decrease in Communication

New research has shown that open-plan offices record 73% less time in face-to-face interactions. Despite being able to see each other across the room or sitting opposite, workers are more inclined to use email and messaging services to communicate with each other.  

Temperature Control 

We all want to feel comfortable while we work. Large areas of office space can be difficult to heat and cool. An area near a window can swelter in summer, while staff in the middle of the floor may need warm clothing because the air conditioning is so cold for them. Workers’ personal preferences are difficult to accommodate in open-plan offices because air conditioning isn’t zoned. It’s more likely temperatures can be adjusted in small offices. 

Lack of Privacy

For many workers, the lack of privacy is their main grievance around open-plan. They may feel they can’t take a personal call surrounded by colleagues and need to leave their desk before answering it. Open-plan offices need more meeting rooms and break-out areas so staff can take a call or meet a colleague without disturbing others.  

Some workers complain that open plan doesn’t allow them to relax during the day because others can always see them. They would prefer to sit in an office and communicate face to face when a colleague knocks on their door. 

It seems being constantly surrounded by colleagues is making us cranky.  Research has shown the lack of privacy can lead to strained relationships and defensive behaviour in the workplace.  

The Verdict - Do Open Plan Offices Really Work?

The configuration of office space comes down to personal preference. Everyone works differently. Some employees enjoy an open-plan layout because it provides more opportunities to be social.  It can be less intimidating to approach a colleague and some feel like they’re part of a team. 

For other workers, open-plan makes it hard for them to concentrate and do the work they want because of the distractions. The lack of privacy can make them less inclined to communicate face to face and makes them feel tense. 

With research showing open-plan has its downsides, we may see organisations moving back to office space with more doors.

How to Increase Your Productivity in an Open-Plan Office

If you find it difficult to work in an open plan office, see if you can spend part of your day working in a meeting room. Use this time to do the important work that requires your full attention and concentration. When you’re at your desk, plan to do the tasks that are easier and don’t require the same level of attention.  

If you need to stay at your open-plan desk to work, but you don’t like the interruptions, you could use a sign at times to tell colleagues you’re not available to talk at that time. 

Some employees struggle with the noise of open plan offices. If you find it hard to concentrate, a pair of noise cancelling headphones are a good investment. Headphones are also a subtle way of letting colleagues know you don’t want to be disturbed.     

If you have any queries about office ergonomics, visit the Ergolink showroom, or call us on (08) 9240 7066 or contact us online.