The traditional office space consisted of rooms for workers. These days, office design is much different. Around 70% of today’s offices are open plan. This means that workers sit at desks in one big room together.
The concept of the open plan office came about in the 1950s in Germany, where the idea was that an open plan office would help to encourage the flow of ideas and improve communication between co-workers. The idea became popular in many countries and it soon started to become the preferred way for offices to manage themselves. As well as the perceived communication benefits and creative flow, open plan offices also proved to be cheaper than the traditional office space, which was an added bonus.
As time has gone by, however, much research has been undertaken into the effectiveness of the open plan office and, surprisingly, the results consistently seem to be at odds with the so-called benefits that this style of office can bring.
One of the biggest bugbears of an open plan set up is the noise levels. It stands to reason that when all of your staff are in one big room, they are going to be privy to all that is going on around them, whether it is the sound of a co-worker’s phone ringing, another worker talking about what they watched on telly last night or the member of staff who is the noisiest snacker in town. Noise can also come from the sound of machines and equipment whirring away, such as the photocopier or printer. When a worker is subject to noise, it can be very distracting and can affect concentration, motivation and productivity.
Interestingly enough, some research has also suggested that instead of too much noise being a problem for open plan offices, too little noise can be just as bad. Since there is no real privacy in an open plan set-up, co-workers may feel put off talking to each other, afraid that they may be disrupting others or their conversations may be overheard. This can even go against the notion that open plan offices aid communication and flow of ideas, if workers do not feel comfortable communicating in an open space.
One of the other issues associated with an open plan office is the ease with which workers can be distracted by others. If you can see someone working, then it is far easier to distract or interrupt them than if they are sectioned off in another room. Once a person is interrupted, it can take about 25 minutes on average to get back into the task they were doing.
Research has also found the open plan style can cause increased stress levels and reduced work productivity. Instead of feeling closer to other workers, for many it made them feel more distant. Job satisfaction and motivation were also affected, as many workers disliked the fact that an open office reduced their ability to control their environment, such as temperature and lighting. Experts also concluded that open plan offices may even be detrimental to health, with the amount of sick leave increasing the more people worked in a single space. In fact, 90% of studies have shown that an open plan office is linked to health problems such as stress and high blood pressure.
With such negativity surrounding open plan offices, it does raise the question of why there are still so many around. Whilst for many it may be about costs involved, other businesses may have found ways to counteract the negative issues associated with the open plan design.
Some offices have introduced what is known as ‘pink noise’ to their open plan set-up, which is similar to white noise and can help to muffle human speech, thus reducing distractions to other workers.
Other offices have made use of screen dividers within the open set-up to allow workers to retain some privacy, which can prevent them being interrupted as often. It can be helpful to get advice from the experts, such as Cameron Barclay, on what can be done to improve your office space.
A good idea to ensure communication levels are maximised is to place workers in one part of the room near to others who they need to work with most. This means they do not need to walk to the other end of the room to discuss ideas with their co-workers, where they may also end up disrupting others en route. If some workers are inherently noisier than others as part of their job, such as needing to answer phone calls, then do not sit them next to groups of workers who require quiet and concentration.
One of the most interesting concepts of contemporary office design involves creating a fluid, free-flowing open plan space, so that workers have different zones or areas where they can use mobile devices to work, according to the task in hand. An open plan space could therefore be split into a quiet zone or brainstorming hub, for instance, using dividers, furniture, baffle boards or bushy plants to segment areas. This may help to solve some of the issues.