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.
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