Open Office – Productivity Enabler or Slasher?

Today, about 70 percent of employees in the U.S. work in open offices.  Despite this high number, you may be surprised to learn that the open office concept is not the be-all and end-all for everyone. Success depends on personal work styles and personalities and how well workers can adapt to the high level of distraction served up by open offices.  

According to the International Management Facility Association, workers in open plan offices get sick more often (62 percent more sick days on average), they don’t like the noise (sound and temperature are the most important factors in the environment), older workers really don’t like the noise (those over 45 are more sensitive to noise and temperature), and open offices deplete productivity.

The biggest impact on productivity tends to be distractions such as overhearing conversations, ringing phones and noisy machines Tonya Smith-Jackson and Katherine Klein in the Journal of Environmental Psychology identified reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy as factors negatively affecting productivity.

Another finding in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour confirmed that workers in open offices are more stressed and less satisfied with their work environment. After returning to survey the same workers six months later, researchers learned that not only were workers still unhappy with their new office, but their team relations broke down even further.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the noise in open offices decreases cognitive performance. Psychologist Nick Perham states that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out office intrusion does not help – even that impairs mental acuity.

While open offices seem to be better suited to younger workers, a study in 2012 by Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe found that certain types of noise such as conversations and laughter are equally distracting to Generation Y workers as they are to their older counterparts. However, younger workers enjoyed the camaraderie of open spaces, valuing their time spent socializing with coworkers. And while younger workers acknowledge the “problems” of open offices, they see them as fair trade-offs for a greater good.

But the trade-off is not as great as it might seem. Regardless of age, when we are exposed to too many inputs at once – a computer screen, conversation, music, telephones, email alerts – our senses become overloaded and more work is required of us to achieve a desired result. Those unable to screen out distractions in the office are frantic multitaskers.

According to Maria Konnikova (Open Office Trap), as a workplace norm, the multitasking millennial seems to be more open to distraction. However, their wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation:  They enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run.

It seems that the tried and true traditional offices that include cubicles are still the best despite their drawbacks. Research leads us to believe that employees are far more productive (and happier) in these controlled and focus-driven environments than in the open office.

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