The Open-Office Trap

Posted on March 13, 2018 by

I just read a great article in The New Yorker that stated 70 percent of all offices have an Open Floor Plan. What once was cutting edge for start-up companies has now permeated to almost three-quarters of all office space. As I began reading, I expected to read all about the positive attributes of an open office environment but was surprised as the article took another tone.

112508open-02Apparently, the open office environment was conceived in the 1950’s to facilitate better communication and idea flow. And even though this concept has slowly taken over office layouts, there is a growing body of evidence that these open offices undermine the very things they were designed to achieve. The common trend was that productivity actually suffered because of uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.

On the flip side, these layouts fostered a symbolic sense of mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovate enterprise.

I then started thinking that maybe the open office layout was geared towards a younger workforce, who, if they are like my kids, are very adept at multi-tasking ( they must be because I see them watch tv, text, play mobile games and talk to me all at the same time ). As I read further, the article shared that research showed young employees found noises such as conversations and laughter, just as distracting as their older counterparts did. They complained about a “lack of privacy” and an inability to control their environments. Interestingly though, they went on to share that they believed the trade-offs were worth it because the open space provide them with a sense of camaraderie and they valued the time spend socializing with their coworkers, who they saw as friends.

So what does that mean to companies ( mine included ) that provide an open work space?? To me it means that even though the next generation of workers value the layout, it may be detrimental to their production. To minimize it, I feel it is important to share these concerns with your team and to discuss ways to minimize the negative while retaining the positive. If possible, have space designed away from the work space where employees can gather and socialize. Make sure that everyone values and respects others and that they don’t constantly disrupt them during the workday. If you are going to converse with a co-worker, do it in the break room or over a coffee in the kitchen. Don’t hold a conversation over your cubes as this only leads to others stopping what they are doing to either join the conversation or simply to listen. Try to block out quiet times that can be used to focus on important tasks and save socializing for more off-time.

It doesn’t appear that there is a perfect solution but being aware of the issues is a good first step.

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Author's biography:

Ted co-founded KCM Solutions and now oversees all business development and client projects. Previously, he founded a financial staffing firm after working with a large investment bank. With passions in mountain biking and triathlons, he can often be found with bags of ice all over his body. When he isn’t training or onsite with our clients, he is still trying to figure out how to corral two, very active boys.