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Why Managers And Staff Have Very Different Ideas About Open Offices

Employees think open offices are too noisy and distracting. Their managers believe they are equipped to deal with it just fine.

Why Managers And Staff Have Very Different Ideas About Open Offices
[Photo: luchunyu via Shutterstock]

What makes an office worker happier than perks like free food, natural light, or even onsite day care? According to a new report by Oxford Economics and consumer electronics company Plantronics, one of the most important "perks" is the ability to focus.

The majority (68%) of the 1,200 employees and managers surveyed placed a distraction-free environment in their top three priorities for their workplace. There’s just one thing standing in the way of that ideal: the open office.

A trend that’s swept in and changed the look of most modern offices, the spacious expanse populated with shared workspaces (and perhaps a low cubicle wall to divvy up the desks) was designed to promote collaboration and communication.

That’s been proven effective, according to several studies. Employees who aren’t on the same team, or even the same division of a company, can boost their own productivity by co-mingling, according to the work of Ronald Burt at the University of Chicago. Another study by Sociometric Solutions even indicated that physical proximity boosted virtual communication. Workers who shared space were 20% more likely to communicate digitally, and emailed four times more frequently when collaborating on a project, finishing 32% faster than those working remotely.

But sitting elbow to elbow with colleagues in an open office rarely provides the opportunity to hunker down and concentrate without resorting to headphones. Yet here again, we find a big disconnect between the opinions of staff and management.

According to the Oxford Economics report, only 39% of executives said that ambient noise affects their employees’ productivity, and only one-third (33%) believe that loud colleagues are an issue. Overall, the researchers found that bosses felt their employees were equipped to deal with distractions at work, but less than half of employees themselves agree.

The pool of respondents included 50% of workers between the ages of 18 and 35. "Millennials were more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and in general, are more annoyed by ambient noise in the office," the researchers write. "In fact, they are more likely to take steps—like listening to music or leaving their desks—to drown out noise, and to say blocking out distractions increases their productivity and improves their mood."

Yet the researchers’ analysis shows that when it comes to designing and constructing an office, noise is an afterthought. An overwhelming majority (85%) said that the workplace should be designed to allow and encourage frequent employee interaction. A full three-fourths of managers report that offices should allow staff to collaborate often and effectively with each other. Seventy-seven percent also feel the office space should allow the company to minimize costs.

This may be because the majority of managers surveyed (62%) reported having their own private office. "Execs don’t necessarily experience the everyday challenges of working in an open work space area," says Beau Wilder, Plantronics’s head of innovation. Yet he points out that productivity is very difficult to measure concretely. "When you can’t measure something easily, it is tough to be able to put your finger on a causal effect that could be impacting the results," he says.

"If companies are not careful," the researchers warn, "workers may turn conference rooms into de facto offices, defeating the purpose of both open-plan layouts and shared meeting spaces."

As Joan Blumenfeld, principal of Perkins+Will, one of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies in 2015 told us in a previous interview:

Workspaces should flex to provide a variety of spaces and destinations for workers to inhabit that promote movement throughout the day. While many companies are doing a good job of incorporating some of these elements into their workplace design, there’s a need for more awareness and implementation of this way of thinking holistically about the workplace.

Oxford Economics researchers agree. "Good workplace design takes employee needs into consideration and facilitates activities that enhance productivity." That includes turning down the volume on distracting ambient noise.

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