Open plan workplaces may be killing worker creativity and decreasing the ability to work productively. Despite this, the majority of Australian offices have adapted to open plan designs with the intention of breeding creativity and teamwork.

Most new office architecture still revolves around open plan designs as managers feel enabling incidental meetings and colleague collaboration is of utmost importance. The non-hierarchical nature of open plan offices gives workers a sense of close proximity and access to leaders.

Some workers find the benefits of being in close proximity to more experienced colleagues crucial, but for most workers, the cons outnumber the pros.

Most workers in open plan designs will attest there is a fine balance between beneficial chance collaborations and too much communication. Listening to the conversations of colleagues in close proximity can be extremely distracting, not to mention loud keyboards, text message notifications, and phone calls all around them.

Research has shown that open plan offices contribute to poorer relations between co-workers, reduced satisfaction with the workplace, and greater stress amongst employees.

“Not only is the focus mode not functioning optimally in most office environments,” said Diane Hoskins, executive director of global design firm Gensler. “We found statistical evidence that the effectiveness of collaboration, learning and socialising suffers if the ability to focus is diminished.”

“I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to say we are at the beginning of a new era in workplace design.

Gensler recently conducted research which showed that only one in four workers in the United States feel they work in an optimal environment.

Constant disruptions can seriously inhibit workers’ ability to focus on the task at hand.

Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking says people are most creative when they have privacy and are free from disruptions.

“The constant interaction [open plan] offices encourage is exhausting and unproductive,” she says.

Detrimental to Concentration

Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency, says people lose focus and become confused when two people talk at the same time.

Treasure says concentration is easily lost in open plan offices because to do one’s work “it requires listening to the voice inside our heads to organise symbols, to organise a flow of words and to put them down on paper.”

Treasure says our ‘auditory bandwidth’ is full when someone else is speaking, which makes it very difficult to process internal thoughts.

Dr Vinesh Oommen, a researcher for the Queensland University of Technology and the Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation studies the effect open plan offices have on employees.

“There is an overall feeling of insecurity,” he says. “It has been found that the high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, and there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or saying on the phone,” Oommen says.

Office workers are said to spend 55 per cent of their time at work on duties that require deep concentration such as reading or writing complex data and programming. This statistic is up 14 per cent from 2007.

American researchers have continually found that tasks requiring concentration and focus require peace and quiet. Many daily tasks are hard to accomplish when too close to colleagues.

Gensler found that upon the introduction of open plan offices, workers have struggled to cope with interruptions by colleagues or the sound, sight and sometimes even the smell of co-workers.

In 2009 the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management published an article which found that problems such as high blood pressure and stress were found in 90 per cent of studies on open plan offices.

Every manager knows that sick days drastically reduce a company’s potential productivity. The Danish Ministry of Employment recently published a study which found workers in open plan offices take over 60 per cent more sick leave than those with private offices.

Workers with private offices are happiest with their environments according to a 2009 Swedish study. That same study found that workers in open plan offices were the most dissatisfied.

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Some open plan workplaces are effective if they have flexible spaces available for use.

How to Make Open Plan Offices Work

“There are very effective open-plan offices and very ineffective ones,” says Steve Coster, principal at Australian architecture firm HASSELL.

As long as an open plan office has several flexible spaces where workers can go if they need some respite and the opportunity to concentrate, open plan offices still have their advantages.

Giving workers a choice of places to work allows them to personally cater their environment to the type of work they are doing. Many open plan office managers encourage workers to give themselves a block of time each day when they are free from interruption.

Coster says desk placement, personalization and privacy should all be taken seriously. He does not advocate hot-desking, a practice through which no staff member has a permanent desk, but says using space flexibly is integral.

Some managers have tested office ‘pink noise’ which projects a background noise into the work environment in order to mask chatter and distracting noises.

“The building’s easy, the architecture’s easy. It’s thinking about how to use the building that really is challenging,” says British architect Frank Duffy, an industry leader in office design and workplace architecture.

Based on research findings, Oommen feels Australian employers must re-think whether open plan environments are suitable in their offices.

He says research shows that small, private closed offices are more beneficial and lead to greater productivity, but admits that getting managers on board with changing their workplace is always tricky.

“The problem is that employers are always looking for ways to cut costs,” he says. “And using open-plan designs can save 20 per cent on construction.”