For years the trend has been towards open plan offices, but the wide, open and often noisy spaces haven’t performed quite as well as their proponents hoped.

Open office woes

Studies done over the years have shown that open office space leads to non-productive working practices. The reasons are many-fold, but the most common complaints among those employees who are forced to work in open plan offices include:

  • Too much noise
  • No privacy for confidential meetings
  • Too many interruptions

The question of noise is one of the main complaints, with workers complaining of being unable to concentrate on their own tasks and the difficulty in finding any kind of focus because of the constant clatter. Stress is one the major causes of ill-health amongst employees, making it one of the main causes of absenteeism.

Low motivation levels also contribute to the general malaise felt by many workers in open office situations. When they know they’re not going to be able to concentrate on a task, there can be a sense of futility in even starting.

Why open offices were invented

It was originally thought that open office situations would promote a greater sense of camaraderie amongst co-workers, allowing them to interact with each other more easily, sharing ideas and boosting each other’s creativity.

To a large extent, this concept backfired. While it’s true that there are far more conversations going on in an open office than there would be if offices were closed off or employees separated from each other, studies have shown that the conversations are short and sweet. Far from being the natural and spontaneous interaction of idea swapping, the lack of privacy has the opposite effect, with no one wanting to share any more than the most superficial information.

How employees cope in open offices

Additional studies suggest that the lack of control open plan employees feel with regard to the noise around them, puts them in a stressed frame of mind, building frustration and even anger with other co-workers working methods. Repeated tapping of pens, constant coughing, phones ringing and loud nearby conversations all add to the distraction this uncontrollable hubbub creates.

Employees often resort to bringing in their own method of control in the form of noise cancelling headphones or ear-buds that allow them to listen to music of their own choice. They’re still subject to noise, but feel they have some level of control over what it is they’re hearing.

Other’s resort to staying later or arriving earlier. Bosses may imagine this is down to enthusiasm or company loyalty, little realising those are the only quiet hours when work may be completed. Productivity is, therefore, still low thanks to reduced productive working hours.


First the walls came down, then the partitions came down, but lately office partition systems are going back up again in companies that recognise the value of privacy and sound reduction.

Cubicle working may not be the perfect situation, but given the choice between total open plan and their own partitioned area to work in, most workers would choose the semi privacy of the partition.

They enjoy the ability to personalise their space as well as the option to hold reasonably private meetings where sometimes sensitive information is exchanged.

Leave a Reply