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Nearly 70 percent of offices have open layouts that are characterized by areas with no partitions and cubicles with low or high partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. However, there’s some question about the effectiveness of open office space.
The initial advantages of accessibility and collaboration in an open office environment are being challenged. And the lack of privacy and confidentiality might be encouraging just the opposite of the intended result. A study of more than 42,000 people revealed that open office workers were more dissatisfied with “ease of interaction” than those in traditional, enclosed offices.
That being said, it appears that the open office trend continues to increase in popularity. And it’s not because of cost. I was recently quoted in the Detroit Free Press about Ford spending close to $1 billion dollars on new office space for their employees. And if you look at the pictures, it’s open office space.
4 Common Open Office Challenges
If organizations are going to continue offering open office spaces, they need to fully understand the benefits and shortcomings. Same with the employees who choose to work in that environment. No one wants to work in an unproductive office. Here are the top four challenges of open office working and how organizations and individuals can overcome those issues:
Challenge #1: Noise and Distractions. It will be come as no surprise that noise is the primary culprit for distraction in open offices. In an analysis of more than 100 studies, the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology said when questioned about their open work environment, staff cite noise as the greatest issue of dissatisfaction.
But, when it comes to noise, not all noises are equal. In a 2008 survey of workers in private rooms and open offices led by Annu Haapakangas, respondents indicated that, while telephone sounds and other office noise was distracting, almost half (48%) indicated that speech was particularly frustrating. The survey added that employees on average wasted 21.5 minutes per day due to conversational distractions, making speech the top cause of reduced productivity.
To deal with the noise issue, organizations might want to consider allowing employees to listen to music or white noise. However, this might only be good for certain activities. A review of research published in the Psychology of Music found that, while background music can improve one’s emotions, it negatively impacts the reading process and memory.
The other option is headphones. I know an increasing number of organizations are providing employees with a headphone allowance that gives them the ability to select headphones that work for them. Headphones are a popular way to regain control of noise in open offices, even if it ironically comes at the cost of collaboration. The key to introducing headphones successfully into the work environment is allowing employees to feel they are in control, according to the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Challenge #2: Lack of Privacy. According to the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, sharing facilities and workspace with others can lead to a psychological state known as crowding, which affects behavior. Risks in the open office — including interactions, noise, unwanted observation and printers in the common workspace — undermine privacy and comfort. As a result, these factors can cause office workers to have difficulty concentrating, react negatively to interactions, and become dissatisfied with their job.
Happakangas suggests that organizations consider how the space relates to a person’s job. “As periods of individual work and telephone conversations are still predominant in most office professions, open offices do not provide sufficient acoustic, visual and psychological privacy for typical office work.” To make the open office model work, businesses need to have more private areas that allow workers to focus on projects with maximum privacy.
Challenge #3: Absenteeism. The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health reported that workers in open offices had the most days of absence due to sickness than any other type of office. Compared to private offices, open office workers took 62 percent more days off. This could be due to an increased risk for the spread of infection or exposure to environmental stressors such as distracting noise and lack of privacy.
One way to address this issue is by allowing employees who aren’t feeling well the option to work from home. Even if the company doesn’t have a formal telework policy in place, being able to take care of yourself and get a few work tasks done is better than coming into the office and making everyone else sick.
And while we’re on the subject of working from home, a Harvard Business Review study of employees at a Chinese travel agency showed that those who worked from home were happier, less likely to quit and more productive. This is an example of the growing research indicating that working from home can be beneficial for both employers and employees.
Challenge #4: Productivity. We’ve already talked about the challenges with open offices and distractions. But let’s take a moment to quantify how those distractions impact productivity:
- Subjects made twice as many errors after a brief interruption of 2.8 seconds (Source: Journal of Experimental Psychology).
- Workers who are interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish their work (Source: “Reading for Results” by Laraine Flemming).
- It took people an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to return to work following an interruption, when resuming work on the same day (Source: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems).
- Complex tasks take an additional 15 minutes to regain the same intense focus (aka “flow”) as before the interruption (Source: “Peopleware” by Timothy Lister and Tom DeMarco)
Employees who work in open office overcompensate for distractions by doing things that decrease productivity, compromise the quality of work, create overtime, and push oneself harder. Bottom-line: Noise causes distractions that impact productivity so employees do things like take more breaks, further hurting quality and productivity.
Use Feedback to Maintain a Positive Work Environment
Let me share one last piece of research. A study in Environment and Behavior followed 21 employees who were relocated from traditional offices to open offices. Four weeks after the move, employees were not happy with their environment, stress levels, coworker relations and perceived job performance. Six months after the move, they were still unhappy and team relations broke down further.
I believe this last study sets the stage for the real takeaway. I think we’ve always known about workplace distractions and the steps we can take to mitigate those distractions. But the real key to successfully working in an open office environment is communication. Organizations must talk with employees about their work environment. Ask questions during the interview about how a candidate likes to work. Allow candidates to see the office environment during a realistic job preview. And build into the company’s wellness and well-being initiatives ways for employees to learn how to effectively manage their work habits.
I don’t know that the open office concept is going away anytime soon. But that doesn’t mean organizations shouldn’t create ways for employees to do their best work.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Austin, TX16