Open-plan office designs are shown to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing
In case you haven’t heard, private offices and cubicles are obsolete. Companies large and small in nearly all industries are migrating toward open-plan office designs. Apart from the cost efficiency that comes from accommodating more employees in less physical space, the primary goal is collaboration. Studies show that employees of high-performing companies spend more time in collaborative activities than their counterparts in average-performing firms. Office design, in turn, has a major impact on how employees collaborate with each other. It’s hard to argue that open bench seating isn’t far more conducive to collaboration than rows of cubes and offices with doors.
One of the most influential business leaders of modern history understood this intuitively. Steve Jobs famously dictated that all the restrooms at Pixar’s then-new office campus be located in the center of the building. The idea was to force employees of all ranks and roles to have chance meetings with each other several times each day. The same general idea has since caught on more broadly with constant collaboration now designed into employee workstations themselves. Walls and private space are out, transparency and mobility are in.
The downside of openness
However, there is a strong counterpoint to the open-plan paradigm. A few years ago, Time.com published an article that described the open office as “a hotbed of stress.” According to Annie Murphy Paul, a noted expert on human learning, “several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment.” The articles goes on to describe a study in which the “low-intensity noise” of an open office environment is shown to reduce the mental stamina of test subjects. A more recent study by the Dublin Institute of Technology confirmed this point of view. In a survey of 150 knowledge workers across various age groups and industries, 63% of those working in an open plan environment said that the design of their office space had a negative impact on their ability to focus and concentrate.
Then again, the Dublin study also validated the “pros” of the open plan. Fully 80% of survey respondents, presumably including those who found it difficult to concentrate, admitted that an open plan had a positive impact on collaboration with others. Similar positive opinions were voiced in regard to team cohesion, knowledge sharing and social interaction.
Finding the right balance
And therein lies the trade-off. Open-plan office designs are shown to improve collaboration and knowledge sharing but at the expense of heightened employee stress, dissatisfaction with the physical work environment and a reduced ability to concentrate on focused tasks. Is the end result a net positive or a net negative? Only you and your employees can say for sure, but it does lend credence to the recommendations of the Dublin team and office design experts everywhere.
If you do pursue an open-plan design for your office space, be sure to invest in noise mitigation measures and provide ready access to private spaces where employees can “hide out” from the openness. The ideal office environment appears to be a hybrid with some spaces that encourage free-flowing collaboration and other spaces that enable employees to wall themselves off – whether that be physically, mentally, visually or sonically – to focus on the task at hand.