Monday, September 30, 2013

Open plan offices still no good

It’s been said a million times before, but it doesn’t hurt to reiterate. Large open plan offices aren’t such a wise idea, with more drawbacks than benefits. Yet another survey of 42,000 American office workers has been published, and it’s another damnation of the zoo-cage working environment.

The opening case  

There are many supposed benefits to having a lot of employees all able to see, hear and smell one another with no walls separating them. The one that’s mooted most often is that by removing physical boundaries between employees, it encourages better communication and more creativity. The recent survey, however, finds no evidence to suggest that it reaps such great benefits.

The study was conducted by architectural and design scientists Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney, Australia, and makes for depressive reading for the millions of people whose idea of workplace privacy is a flimsy partition.

Contrary to the myth that individual offices cripple a workforce, the people who have a private office are happiest with their working environment. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more productive, of course. They could be happier because it enables them to slack off! But still, they say a happy workforce is a productive workforce, and there is actually a lot of evidence -- rather than conjecture -- to back that up.

Communication breakdown

Workers who toil away in zoo-like conditions are least happy with their workspace. Hearing other people’s conversations and being heard is something that really grinds their gears. A lot of people feel embarrassed making work-related phone calls in their office for this very reason, which can be bad for business if a phone call is what’s required and the person making it isn’t comfortable.

All this is deeply ironic, of course, since talking on the phone is obviously a form of ‘communication’ – something open plan offices are supposed to improve, not hinder. Nor does the study confirm the hypothesis that communication between workers improves enough in an open space to outweigh the lack-of-privacy drawback.

And yet, approximately two-thirds of office workers do their graft in full view of their coworkers. This figure would be higher if it didn’t include managers and other senior workers who are more likely to be given their own office.

Companies often use open plan offices because it's cheaper. Which is fair enough, if that’s the only feasible way of doing things. But to claim that the open-plan environment is actually beneficial or preferable is to ignore the overwhelming body of evidence that says otherwise.