Are Open Plan Offices Damaging Our Thinking?

Research by Dr Vinesh Oommen, from the Queensland University of Technology, claims that the use of open plan offices is adversely affecting productivity. Moreover, open plan offices are linked to decreasing levels of privacy, increasing levels of job dissatisfaction and rising levels of workplace conflict. And if that’s not enough, open architecture and office floor plans can also lead to higher blood pressure and the spread of infectious diseases. In other words, the open plan office is just about the worst possible environment that you can work in. Admittedly, open plan environments improve communication and are friendlier to work in but these are just about the only advantages.

But what’s behind the open plan idea and is it possible that people will ever go back to the idea of private offices? The reason for the rise of open plan is simple. Real estate costs have increased and there is tremendous pressure to cut costs. Hence, a sea of cubicles, or a raft of low-rise work-stations, in large open spaces makes economic sense.

Crucially such spaces also shout "equality." If everyone in an organization shares the same physical space (and has an equal amount of space) then they are equal, right? But this is clearly wrong. First, what’s so wrong about hierarchy and status in organizations? And second, creative businesses in particular demand creative thinking. This, in turn, requires concentration and this is best achieved in calm, quiet, private spaces.

One way of dealing with a noisy environment is to save complex thinking tasks for times when an office is quietest (early mornings, late nights and not on Monday and Friday mornings when the chatter tends to be loudest). As skills shortages bite, power will shift further from the employer to the employee and there will be demands to improve working conditions. Indeed, we may even see the day when physical office settings become as important as salary or the nature of the work itself.

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3 Comments

  • R. Boschen

    I have worked in 2 open plan offices. The one thing I REALLY appreciated about this was the light that ran through one of the offices in which I worked. The one thing I found really curious, and was noted by others in one of the organizations, in my particular area it did not improve communication and while it was a friendly place, no one would know because it was so quiet - there was very little talking going on. Reason: Everyone was plugged into their computers. IF we communicated, we texted or emailed...it was noted as a VERY quiet environment. In the other environment, it was a call center....the open plan does not work well here because the staff constantly complained that they couldn't hear the callers if they had a colleague nearby who spoke loudly. This constant sound also seemed to add to their stress levels.

  • R. Boschen

    I have worked in 2 open plan offices. The one thing I REALLY appreciated about this was the light that ran through one of the offices in which I worked. The one thing I found really curious, and was noted by others in one of the organizations, in my particular area it did not improve communication and while it was a friendly place, no one would know because it was so quiet - there was very little talking going on. Reason: Everyone was plugged into their computers. IF we communicated, we texted or emailed...it was noted as a VERY quiet environment. In the other environment, it was a call center....the open plan does not work well here because the staff constantly complained that they couldn't hear the callers if they had a colleague nearby who spoke loudly. This constant sound also seemed to add to their stress levels.

  • R. Boschen

    I have worked in 2 open plan offices. The one thing I REALLY appreciated about this was the light that ran through one of the offices in which I worked. The one thing I found really curious, and was noted by others in one of the organizations, in my particular area it did not improve communication and while it was a friendly place, no one would know because it was so quiet - there was very little talking going on. Reason: Everyone was plugged into their computers. IF we communicated, we texted or emailed...it was noted as a VERY quiet environment. In the other environment, it was a call center....the open plan does not work well here because the staff constantly complained that they couldn't hear the callers if they had a colleague nearby who spoke loudly. This constant sound also seemed to add to their stress levels.