The trouble with open-plan offices

Open-plan offices are a favorite among business owners and managers, due to their low cost. In fact, open-plan offices have been shown to reduce building costs by up to 20%.

They’re also touted as being beneficial for spontaneous connections with coworkers and encouraging collaboration.

But talk to employees who work in open-plan offices and you’ll hear a different story. For workers, these spaces are noisy, lack privacy, and encourage germs to spread among colleagues.

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Open-plan offices are bad for employee health

Regardless of whether employees enjoy working in open-plan spaces or not, research shows these offices can increase health risks.

A report in the Medical Journal of Australia found a man with tuberculosis put his co-workers at risk and spread the disease, partly due to working in an open-plan office and sharing a desk with others.

Other research has found when a sick employee comes to work, around half of shared surfaces such as the office fridge, photocopier, and door handles are infected with the virus by lunchtime.

Studies have also found employees working in open-plan spaces tend to take more sick leave than those working in traditional offices or from home.

Being in an open space might encourage collaboration and camaraderie, but it also makes it easier for germs to spread, costing businesses in sick leave and lack of productivity.

Employees need more privacy at work

Beyond getting sick, open-plan offices simply make employees more unhappy, on average.

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A survey of employees in the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Finland found those working in open-plan offices were no more satisfied with the ease of collaboration available to them, but were less satisfied with their office space in terms of privacy and comfort.

Employees also rated open-plan offices low for satisfaction related to privacy, space, and noise levels.

As Quiet author Susan Cain says, introverts in particular need to have privacy so they can be alone to recharge after spending lots of time around other people.

There’s no perfect office setup

Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer to the downsides of open-plan workspaces.

They do have benefits, including increased opportunities for collaboration, increased team camaraderie, and lower building costs. But the lack of privacy, increased noise levels, more opportunities for distraction, and increased health risks make them less than perfect for employees.

According to some, the answer may be to look for a balance between open-plan and private workspaces, rather than going all-in on one or the other.

Susan Cain, working with Michigan furniture manufacturer Steelcase, has developed private spaces that can be installed in offices to give employees a better balance. Cain suggests employers find ways to allow workers to move between open spaces and smaller, private rooms for a better balance between small group collaboration, private focused work periods, and more social periods.

Donna Flynn, director of Steelcase’s Workspace Futures research group, agrees:

The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time aloneā€”to be free from distractions, apply expertise and develop a solid point of view about the challenges at hand. People also privacy to decompress and recharge.

Finding a balance between open and closed spaces, says Flynn, is imperative for your team to achieve success:

There is no single type of optimal work setting. Instead, it’s about balance. Achieving the right balance between working in privacy and working together is critical for any organization that wants to achieve innovation and advance.

Cain says removing all opportunities for small groups of workers to connect and collaborate also weakens social ties among team members by inhibiting personal bonding:

The currency of a friendship is to exchange confidences with people but if you feel like you can be overheard, it’s a lot harder to do that.

This is a problem, says Cain, because it stops us forming strong relationships with our colleagues.

Intimacy carries with it negative implications. But part of a satisfying workplace is the ability to form relationships with each other in a more relaxed, human-scale settings. [sic]

Whether your workspace is set up as open-plan or closed offices, if you’re all-in on one or the other you may be missing out. Finding a way to balance open spaces and small, private areas can bring the best of both worlds to your team.

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.