The pros and cons of open-plan offices

Posted on: January 28th, 2016


Noisy, invasive and distracting? Or collaborative, interactive and sociable? Love them or loathe them, open-plan offices have been a fixture of business for decades. Extroverts seem to enjoy working in these communal spaces. Introverts can find it exhausting.

The first open-plan office can be dated back to 1906 when the Larkin Administration Building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, opened in New York. However, it wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that the concept really started to take off. Since then the debate about whether going open plan is best for business has not stopped.

Let’s take a look at some of the key advantages and disadvantages open-plan office working can bring.


A sense of community

One of the most commonly cited advantages of working in an open-plan office is the sense of community it creates. The lack of walls or physical barriers makes it easy for employees to interact with one another and fosters a greater sense of togetherness.

Open-plan offices have also been shown to create a sense of organisational mission among co-workers. They can encourage colleagues to feel they are working for a more laid-back, innovative company, which in turn creates a greater sense of unity and camaraderie among colleagues.

Increased creativity

With such an easy flow of information and teamwork in open offices, the informal conversations that take place on a daily basis can lead to better collaboration, greater innovation and a more creative approach to problem solving. They are perfect places for brainstorming and project planning, with each worker feeding off his or her colleagues as part of the process. And what boss would argue with higher productivity levels? But more about that later…

Reduced costs

On a very practical level, open-plan offices are a cheap option. They require less construction, furniture, utilities and equipment, saving companies both time and money. They also mean less square footage, lower heating and electricity bills, and greater flexibility to accommodate changes in personnel numbers. And the money saved could be invested in other perks and benefits for employees, meaning a more satisfied workforce.


Too noisy and distracting

The most complained about aspect of open-plan offices is the amount of noise they can generate. Noisy offices have been linked to reduced cognitive performance and difficulty recalling information. According to an NCBI study, workers feel stressed after just three hours of being in a noisy open office.

The flipside to this argument is from those who feel there is not enough noise. These open spaces can often be deathly quiet making it awkward to have confidential conversations. It seems workers want some noise – but not too much – just enough to make everyone feel at ease.

Lack of privacy

The more open plan the office, the more visible everyone is within it. An environment designed to bring everyone together will have computer screens on full view and mean phone conversations are easily overheard – not necessarily what everyone wants at work. What’s more, if you find yourself sitting next to a colleague who has particularly bad habits there really is nowhere to hide.

Decreased productivity

Even though we’ve already cited increased productivity as an advantage of open-plan workspaces, these spaces are also blamed for reducing workers’ productivity levels and creative thinking (all that noise and distraction). Business output may also take a knock with higher rates of absenteeism due to the spread of illness. According to another NCBI study, workers in open-plan offices take 62% more sick days than those who have their own private working space.

So who enjoys working in open-plan environments? They are much favoured by start-ups and the tech industry, and younger workers are also fans. Research by Emerald Insight suggests that while workers born after 1982 find noise levels distracting, they are better able to tolerate them compared with older colleagues. This is largely because they place greater importance on that sense of camaraderie, community and sociability at work. In their eyes, co-workers are more than just colleagues – they are also friends.

Considering open-plan offices are so popular, there are as many arguments against the concept as there are in favour of it. However, it all comes down to what is right for an individual business in terms of costs, culture and collaboration. What side of the argument do you favour?

Image: Open space office by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier available under a CC BY 2.0 license

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