The truth about open-plan offices

Finding the right working environment is vital for entrepreneurial success. And while the power of the internet enables some of us to lead more agile working lives, choosing where and how we work, many people still spend their daily grind in an open-plan office. But is it good for us? 

According to The New Yorker’s piece The Open-Office Trap, 70 per cent of all offices now have an open-plan design. But studies have found that employees feel more stressed and have less job satisfaction in this kind of set-up compared to a more traditional office that offers private pods – which is perhaps why we’re seeing an ‘office renaissance’ across the working world.

Step forward organisations like 360 Magazine, who are encouraging a societal shift away from the bland, one-size-fits-all office environment. They claim the ‘near-constant distraction’ from an open-plan office hinders our productivity. So why were we so obsessed with open-plan working in the first place?

Showy architecture vs employee wellbeing

Many companies opt for an open-plan office because it’s more cost-effective and it takes up less floor space. And as Channel 4’s The Secret Life of Buildings suggests, open-plan offices have come about from ‘an obsession with showy architecture rather than what’s best for employee wellbeing’.

The Podcast Why Millennial Leaders are more like Baby Boomers than imagined even highlights the argument that the open-floor plan was developed with the millennial in mind when in fact, millennials mostly value the ability to choose where and how they work over whether an office looks good. 

Does open plan working boost our creativity?

On the flipside, the same podcast highlights the findings that millennials value ‘face-to-face’ time to learn from their colleagues and an open-plan office allows you to do exactly this.

No one can deny that a five-minute break from your screen-time to chat to a colleague can be beneficial and help strengthen work relationships. The BBC article The Perils and Pleasures of the open-plan office even suggested that open-plan offices throw up more opportunities for ‘spontaneous micro-meetings’. But it also means we have to listen to our colleague’s ‘deconstruction of the previous night’s TV.’

Does open plan working hinder our performance?

It still seems that many of us feel that open-plan offices simply aren’t working - and the debate is getting quite heated.

After the Washington Post ran a piece suggesting that ‘Google got it wrong’, publications like WorkDesign Magazine were quick to rebut the argument saying that offices need to be designed on a case-by-case basis according to the specific needs of the business and its employees.

Other studies suggest that being interrupted to help co-workers may have a negative impact on performance. And the Guardian reported that in a study across 10,000 workers, they were losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions from open-plan working. The Secret Life of Buildings went so far as to say that open plan offices could be ‘bad for the brain’. And 360 magazine claim it’s high time we develop offices that enrich our ‘emotional, cognitive and physical wellbeing’. 

Personality vs Performance

But why do some workers cope in open-plan offices better than others? Well, this study suggests the effect of background noise on cognitive ability could be down to whether you’re an introvert or extrovert.

Author and lecturer Susan Cain agrees. In her book Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, she suggests that introverts don’t work best when they are over-stimulated. They need privacy and quiet time to focus. And if employers don’t provide this, they could be hindering their employees’ performance. That’s why she founded Susan Cain Quiet Spaces by Steelcase – a collection of innovative offices that provide ‘respite from an otherwise highly stimulating workplace’.

Is the open-plan office dead?

So what are the ingredients for a great workspace?

If your employer is anything like Plantronics, they might believe that with clever ergonomics, you can create an open-plan office that has the wellbeing of your staff in mind. As The Next Web reported, the audio hardware manufacturer has an office in Amsterdam that boasts noise-absorbing walls and speakers that flood the office with the sound of gushing water to drown out colleagues’ conversations.

However innovative and swanky the design, we probably all agree, the hybrid office – one that offers both open and private workspaces – is the office of the future.

Let’s hope more employers embrace agile working and above all, a culture of choice where you can choose the working environment that’s best for you. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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