2013-11-20

Co.Exist

You're Not Alone: Most People Hate Open Offices

People in cubicles and open offices long for privacy and probably get less work done. That this is surprising at all speaks to the current trendiness of open layouts.

The growing open office trend seems reasonable enough. The thinking goes that employees will be happier and more productive if they work together instead of being separated by thick office walls. Except they aren't.

In a new report, researchers from the University of Sydney examine the "privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices" and find that the benefits of easy communication that supposedly go along with open-plan offices don't outweigh the the disadvantages, such as a major lack of privacy.

Harvard Business Review put together two charts based on the report, which relies on an occupant survey database from the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley.

Here are the biggest issues workers have with different kinds of offices (open, cubicle, private, etc):

People have the most problems by far with open offices and cubicles, which have little privacy, high noise levels, less space, and apparently, worse temperature control. Overall, far more workers stuck in cubicles and open office spaces are dissatisfied with their work environments than people in enclosed private offices.

The lack of space in cubicles and open office plan layouts is the primary reason for workers' frustration. Out of all the factors evaluated, amount of space was deemed most important. While it might seem counterintuitive for open office workers to complain about lack of space--they have the whole office!--people really just want some breathing room, away from their loud coworkers.

The authors write:

...our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction. This study showed that occupants’ satisfaction on the interaction issue was actually higher for occupants of private offices with very low dissatisfaction rate (APD < 5%). Moreover, the increment of overall workspace satisfaction due to the positive impact of ease of interaction in open-plan office layouts failed to offset the decrements by negative impacts of noise and privacy.

Most companies that have switched to open office layouts probably won't go back. Notions of improved collaboration aside, you can cram more people into an open floor plan than you can into a series of enclosed offices. But in some industries, maybe the solution is to do away with offices altogether--or at least reserve them for meetings and other important events. According to one recent study, workers who switch from office work to working from home see their stress levels drop by 25%. If companies want happy employees, that should be reason enough.

[Image via Shutterstock]

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33 Comments

  • Bob MacNeal

    Open-office is command and control owners asking,

    How can we shave overhead and, as a bonus, demean our workforce?

  • Imran

    I'm am an architectural designer, and I've been fighting this uphill battle against open office layouts forever.

  • BE

    I work in an open office with four cubes set up in a small room. Sometimes this can be great for casual conversation among my coworkers but it's awful for privacy. I can totally relate to what the studies found. My seat faces away from but right next to the door to the office, and people are always sneaking in and tapping on my cubical wall to talk to me. I work on deadlines sometimes and I wish I could shut my door so people can just happen upon me like that.

    More to that, what I hate is that other people on staff get their own offices. That just sets up an obvious and sometimes arbitrary hierarchy. It's like, I already feel bad because I've not been given my own office and they have.

  • grantdude

    I recently moved from a traditional (tall partition, separate space for departments) cubicle office to an open office. More collaboration my arse. Two things happened after we moved:

    1. People are afraid to talk because neighbours shoot them dirty looks for being loud.

    2. People who don't take social cues well (they don't realize they're getting dirty looks) talk loudly, and neighbours have to put on headphones to block out the chatter. Which means they can't hear you when you want their attention. So even though you sit a few feet away from each other, you e-mail instead.

    So, in conclusion, again, more collaboration my arse.

  • Kmo

    Interesting. This is counter to my own experience. I hated working in a private office...I would use any excuse to get out of its confining walls. Love working in open space... as long as there are private huddle rooms where you can park yourself when you need to do some serious thinking.

  • Meehna Goldsmith

    I agree that open office spaces may not be ideal; however, working from home isn't a go-to solution despite the stats you quote that 25% of employees feel less stress there. Working at home is isolating and lacks the stimulating mix of energies in an office environment. Dropping by someone's office to chat is part of a work process, and, of course, there's the immediate feedback of advice or information to get something done or move forward on a project. As for stress, do some more research. Stress isn't a bad thing in moderation: it's motivating and pushes people to strive, sometimes going beyond what they or others thought was their potential.

  • my2centsworth

    I'd like to see *all* levels of an organization consider the open office before foisting it upon the worker bees. If senior management won't work in an open office, why should the rest of the organization.

  • neal

    It really depends on the people you work with...I have had some great success with the open office environment and its all about balance.

  • Jean-Louis Viljoen

    My company employs a truly engaged workforce, and our head office, including directors and CEO, sit in an open office, with all GM's hot seating. Its works perfectly well, but our culture is different, I personally find if yours staff are disengaged, it's not as effective as with an engaged workforce. We have various breakaway areas and private cubicles for personal/private conversations, and boardrooms for meetings. We have sectioned areas per departments for obvious reason, but its all open plan. We are a thriving company, forever growing and very fast paced, and open plan works for us. So I would conclude that it has it's pro's and con's, but personally, I feel more part of the organisation and more engaged in an open plan area, than if I had to be crammed in an office.

  • Susan Pelczynski

    Jean-Louis, I believe you have conveyed your perspective well. The real key is that no one solution fits all organizations or companies. The type of work, demographic of employees, methods for tracking performance (success in getting work done) guides the design solution. So some firms may work well with open office and some need mostly enclosed offices. We design what fits the organization, not what is the current trend. A recent think-tank had enclosed offices in "quiet zones" and then public spaces for collaboration and sharing of the brain trust in grouped areas. A web-based media firm had all open bench systems in a high-density space. This group delivered 400 articles or deadlines a DAY. Instant communication and problem solving was critical. They are simply different firms with different needs and so get different solutions. I think we just see more news articles on open office and alternative spaces because, well, they are newer. Maybe we will see an article called: Bucking the trend...with enclosed offices...but I doubt it. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments.

  • gbacoder

    I think choice is good. as long as there is no pressure to be "expected" to work with "everyone else". as long as your employees are allowed to say what they really think, without fear of upsetting you or your vision of what is right, that would be fine. people are different, just bc you like open does not mean the rest will. don't want to marginalise those that like to work alone. "quiet by susan cain" is an excellent and well researched book on this subject that I would suggest you read.

  • vinod bidwaik

    This is depend upon the job you do. In media industry people are encouraged to seat together in a group so that convergence happen easily.

  • HE3

    Employee emotion and reaction on a subject, in this case spaces, is a valid survey subject because that's the thing that primarily blocks forward motion in an organization. If you don't think so, just ask someone to do a task that makes him angry and see how far he gets.

  • Luis Gerardo Sánchez

    As from my point of view, it depends on the kind of work your performing. An open office or cubicles, still have to be isolated by departments, where people doing the same kind of job, e.g. finance, planning, logistics, etc. can communicate easily. Open offices are not good when your job requires you to concentrate.

  • Kyle Lyles

    This is just another craze pushed by clueless managers who run out of real ideas. For a recent example of this: Meg Whitman the most recent hired CEO without a clue at HP.