Here’s why employees hate open-plan office spaces

In these divided times, there seem to be fewer things than ever that unite us. One of them, apparently, is a deep dislike of open-plan office space.

A survey by Clutch is only the latest to document this: Only 28% of American employees favor having an open office floor plan. The survey also finds that 53% of them value their own office space more than they value the designated spaces organizations with open plans often set aside for employees to use for quiet time, meetings and important phone calls.

And, even though open plan offices are often touted as a great way to increase collaboration among employees, a study from Harvard last year finds that they actually do the opposite: face-to-face interaction decreased almost 70% in open office environments.

Seated side by side at long tables, employees in open-plan offices often don earphones for privacy and to drown out noise from co-workers. Not surprisingly, this leads to less interaction among colleagues.

“If you’re sitting in a sea of people, for instance, you might not only work hard to avoid distraction (by, for example, putting on big headphones) but — because you have an audience at all times — also feel pressure to look really busy,” the study’s co-author, Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein, said.

Even Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda has rapped about the ills of the open-plan office environment.

What to do? Although a return to traditional offices is highly unlikely, modifications can be made to give workers a bit more privacy while promoting team collaboration.

At tech company JotForm, each team of five to six people gets its own large room equipped with large desks and space in which to stretch out in, founder and CEO Aytekin Tank wrote in Entrepreneur earlier this year.

Author and consultant Geoffrey James suggests five things, such as borrowing an idea promoted by Steve Jobs of having small offices connected to a larger team area where employees can congregate for snacks, impromptu meetings and idea-sharing. The remaining four include having movable barriers so employees can create private space as needed, having two or three people work in individual offices instead of just one, have cubicles with taller walls in offices with lots of natural light, and letting people work from home more often with a common space reserved primarily for meetings.

“While I’ve not seen any peer-reviewed academic research on these alternatives, they would overcome most if not all of the complaints that workers surface when they’re subjected to an open plan,” James writes. “Just as important, some of these alternatives would either cost the same, or significantly less, than open plan in terms of floorspace costs.”

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.