Every month at FMP we share our thoughts on the latest workplace trends and explore the effects they have on employees. In one of the greatest workplace comedies of the 20th century, “Office Space” follows an information technology worker who is fed up with his dismal job at a depressing corporate office. It’s easy to see why this employee hates his job so much: tedious and redundant tasks, multiple micro-managing bosses, and an almost prison-esque atmosphere filled with individual, high-walled cubicles and closed-door office rooms for managers. This depiction of traditional office spaces as isolating and soul-sucking is hardly limited to one movie; it is a common trope seen in TV, books, articles, and comics (e.g., Dilbert).
So how can businesses create an atmosphere that employees find pleasurable, while also increasing collaboration, productivity, and work transparency? The answer seems simple: implement open office spaces. As opposed to isolating employees within the confines of cubicle and office walls, open work environments remove spatial boundaries in hopes of creating a free, welcoming, and operative space for peak engagement and collaboration. This vision, combined with the fact that open workplaces are less expensive, take up less space, and require less maintenance than their closed counterparts, explains why they’ve become so popular. NPR reports that an overwhelming “seventy percent of us work in some kind of open office set up”. So, with such a popular approach, is it working? Are employees happier, more productive, and more comfortable at their open office spaces than they were in traditional settings? In order to answer this question, we need to identify our measurement criteria. I propose that office space effectiveness be measured based on its impact on three crucial aspects of work life: job satisfaction, coworker relations–both social and professional (i.e., collaboration), and employee performance.
I’m going to be perfectly blunt here: researchers consistently find that job satisfaction is negatively correlated with an open office design.2,6,7,8 Even back in 1972, it was concluded that due to heightened noise level, loss of privacy, and increased visual distractions, open or landscape designs leave employees feeling worse about their work environment than closed or semi-open designs.3 Workers in open office spaces tend to report more stressful working conditions and greater feelings of fatigue, irritation, distress, and health-related ailments such as headaches and colds.5 These negative effects impact those in cognitively demanding positions (e.g., managers and technical workers) much more than those with less challenging work (e.g., clerical positions), likely due to skilled work requiring greater attention and focus. New research may provide insight on which specific occupations, jobs, and/or positions could benefit from an open office environment.
Results here have been mixed. Open workspaces have been found to worsen interpersonal relations, but desk-sharing improves communication.4 Satisfaction with coworker relations appears to decrease when employees move from a traditional office setting to an open workspace, though the move has minimal impact on satisfaction with employee communications3. A common theme among research in this area seems to be that coworker interactions are more frequent, and communication is more consistent in open offices, whether desired or not. Areas for additional research include the impact of open office spaces on extroverts vs. introverts and team-oriented employees vs. individual contributors. However, it is also worth noting that most of these publications state that even in cases of increased communication, perceived productivity and efficiency take a hit when switching from closed to open workspaces. This is worth considering when establishing a pros and cons list for open workplaces.
Once again, results here are inconclusive. Internal motivation decreases significantly when employees move from a conventional office to an open office plan8, which could certainly explain why performance would drop. One study found no evidence to support the claim that open offices improve productivity, only that it creates a more “favorable social climate”.5 A survey of 350 participants found that improved communication increases productivity, and therefore open office plans which encourage communication also increase productivity.1 However, the same study notes that noise is “one of the leading causes of… reduced productivity,” which would imply that open office spaces, which are inherently noisier than closed spaces, decrease productivity as well. Others have decided that open plan offices result in “loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction.”9 While psychologists and researchers are not all in agreement, it is worth noting that in my research I found older articles are more likely to support the idea that productivity and performance improve in open office spaces, while more recent articles challenge that notion and often conclude the opposite to be true. More studies would help the community establish a more concrete position, as well as identify the nuances which may lead to such vastly different conclusions (e.g., occupation, position, additional environmental factors).
Unfortunately, there is no clear-cut answer regarding the best office design. Though we have much greater insight into the effects of office environment on workers’ wellbeing and productivity than we did previously, there is much more yet to be uncovered. In deciding whether an open office space is right for you or your company, it is important to keep the following questions in mind:
- Are you or your employees people-oriented? Researchers do seem to agree that outgoing individuals who enjoy social interactions and team environments do better in open offices than introverted individuals who place higher value on privacy and space. People who draw energy from others may prefer an open work environment, where those who feel drained from social interactions may find a closed office space better suits them. Keeping this in mind, you may be able to create a workspace that has a balance of open and closed spaces that can enable open communication, while also providing quieter areas to focus with less distractions.
- How do you like to get your work done? If you’re the sort of person (or you employ the sort of people) who likes to do your work at a café, or study with friends, or listen to TV/music/podcasts while working, you may thrive in an open office. If you are easily distracted or experience sensory overload (i.e., overstimulation from sound, sight, smell, or tactile sensations), you may find the open office environment a poor fit. Again, these preferences can inform how you structure an open office space or the cultural norms that may need to be adopted when transitioning into this environment (e.g., providing employees with noise-canceling headphones, setting aside dedicated phone rooms for calls and kitchen space for meals, asking music and podcasts be enjoyed using headphones).
- Are you used to working in a closed or open office space? People tend to like routine and fear change. As such, it is no surprise that closed office spaces are viewed more favorably by those who already work in closed office environments (Marans & Spreckelmeyer, 1982) and vice versa for those who work in open office spaces. While many organizations find that space transformations or moves are unavoidable, particularly for a successful and growing company, if you are content with your current working environment, it may be best to stick to it. If you dislike your place of work, it could be worth experimenting with environments better suited to your workstyle.
Ultimately, you need to find the environment that works best for you, and everybody is different. Whether you prefer a closed or an open office experience, where we work does have an impact on how we feel about our jobs, how much effort we put into our work, and even how successful we are in our roles. Understanding how workspace impacts work life perceptions, you can be more thoughtful and intentional about considering new office space and future transitions- aiming to find a balance that mitigates some of the concerns and maximizes the benefits. So, find (or create) a workspace that inspires and motivates you to be your best self from 9 to 5.
Have you ever worked in an open office space? Share your thoughts about open office plans with us on LinkedIn!
- Ajala, E.M. (2012). The influence of workplace environment on workers’ welfare, performance and productivity. The African Symposium, 12(1), 141-149.
- Brennan, A., Chugh, J. S., & Kline, T. (2002). Traditional versus Open Office Design: A Longitudinal Field Study. Environment and Behavior, 34(3), 279–299. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916502034003001
- Brookes, M. J., & Kaplan, A. (1972). The Office Environment: Space Planning and Affective Behavior. Human Factors, 14(5), 373–391. https://doi.org/10.1177/001872087201400502
- Einar De Croon, Judith Sluiter, P Paul Kuijer & Monique Frings-Dresen (2005) The effect of office concepts on worker health and performance: a systematic review of the literature, Ergonomics, 48:2, 119-134, DOI: 10.1080/00140130512331319409
- Hedge, A. (1982). The Open-Plan Office: A Systematic Investigation of Employee Reactions to Their Work Environment. Environment and Behavior, 14(5), 519–542. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916582145002
- Kamarulzaman, N., Saleh, A.A., Hashim, S.Z., Hashim, H., Abdul-Ghani, A.A. (2011). An Overview of the Influence of Physical Office Environments Towards Employee. Procedia Engineering, 20(2011) 262-268. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.proeng.2011.11.164
- Marans, R. W., & Spreckelmeyer, K. F. (1982). Evaluating Open and Conventional Office Design. Environment and Behavior, 14(3), 333–351. https://doi.org/10.1177/0013916582143005
- Oldham, G., & Brass, D. (1979). Employee Reactions to an Open-Plan Office: A Naturally Occurring Quasi-Experiment. Administrative Science Quarterly, 24(2), 267-284. doi:10.2307/2392497
- Oommen, VG; Knowles, M and Zhao, I. Should Health Service Managers Embrace Open Plan Work Environments?: A Review. Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2008: 37-43.
- Sundstrom, E., Herbert, R. K., & Brown, D. W. (1982). Privacy and Communication in an Open-Plan Office: A Case Study. Environment and Behavior, 14(3), 379–392.