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The backlash against the open office floor plan

Posted September 28

The concept of open office space has had its share of critics for decades, and yet the floor plan remains popular.

"Open office floor plans seem to be an essential part of start-ups, and more established organizations are also catching onto this trend," noted blog tradegecko. This, despite complaints of privacy, temperature and noise level, as Harvard Business Review found after tabulating worker complaints on different office types.

But just how unproductive have scientific studies shown open offices to be?

“If you don’t have your own space … perhaps you are better off working remotely with your cat for company,” a respondent to a recent survey from the Auckland University of Technology said against open workspaces.

The survey of 1,000 Australians found that as workspaces became increasingly shared, demands on workers increased, co-worker friendships did not improve and workers felt less supportive supervision.

Open offices have been around for decades “and researchers have known about their negative effects for almost as long,” Slate reported. Researchers in the 1980s said there was “no evidence … to support the claim for improved productivity in open-plan,” and that “workers in open plan offices generally report having less privacy, spending more time talking, hearing more noise, and experiencing more distractions.”

Aside from distraction, Inc.com reported that open offices cause more illness in the workplace. The New Yorker reported in 2014 that those who worked in fully open offices took an average of 62 percent more sick leave.

Fortune noted in May that the backlash against open offices “has reached fever pitch.” Articles and testimonials published within the past two years “depict the open office synonymous with the spread of disease, ceaseless distractions and … ‘being forced to listen to phone calls about the veterinary issues of your co-workers’ cats.’”

Despite the noted drawbacks to open offices, it’s important to not swing too far in the opposite direction and give workers “unlimited privacy and solitude,” the blog The Conversation stated. What it called “spontaneous interaction” is necessary for many types of work.

“Too much and the distractions will outweigh any potential collaborative benefits,” it noted. “Too little and the benefits are not evident.”

For those who find a shared office space difficult to bear, The Conversation recommended blocking visual distractions with “panels, book shelves or ‘green walls’ of plants” and to similarly block out noise with headphones.

Fortune suggested that the open office’s successor to the title “office of the future” may be a hybrid office space that has a range of spaces for employees, with private offices, cubicles and “truly open floor plans (in which even cubicle dividers are dismantled)” along with communal areas and sound-proof rooms for solo work. With employees given the freedom to move throughout them during the day.

“Thanks to the corresponding backlash, we may be at the beginning of the next wave in office design,” Laura Entis wrote for Fortune.

Email: smanderson@deseretnews.com, Twitter: @Sarahsonofander.

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