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Are Open Offices Helping or Harming Workplace Wellness?

Are Open Offices Helping or Harming Workplace Wellness?

The CEO of the agency welcomes you on your first day and leads you to your workspace. It’s decked out with top-line equipment: a brand-new Mac, an Aeron chair, and a glossy-white desk.

The only thing your new office is missing? Walls.

Open floor plans are the layout of choice for an increasing number of companies, particularly in hip creative and software firms. Proponents of open floor plans say they reduce barriers to collaboration and increase teamwork. Plus, if the company is erecting a new building or moving into an old warehouse-type space, a lot of money can be saved by not having to construct more than a handful of individual offices.

Do open offices live up to the hype, however? Or do they actually damage your employees’ well-being and productivity?

What Employees Say About Open Offices

When we sought out feedback about the benefits or drawbacks of open office plans, the responses were mixed, but overall skewed negative:

“I work in a cubicle now and it is a dream in comparison to working in an open office like I was before. I can leave my headphones off most of the time with no worries about being interrupted or focusing on other conversations that have nothing to do with me.” – Jess

“I've worked in both and when you need to collaborate on the fly, open is waaay better. The formality of knocking on a door or the discomfort of squishing four people into a box really has a negative effect on how I work. I like open, but with private workspaces, for the days they are needed.” – Trudi

“I've only once worked in an office that wasn't an open office, and it was heaven. People only interrupted my work when it was actually important, and I could focus without needing to wear noise-canceling headphones.” – Lauchlin

It may seem like a minor thing, but the ability to work without distractions is very high on the priority list for most employees. Oxford Economics surveyed 1,200 executives and employees and found that 68% ranked the ability to work with minimal disruption in their top three most important elements of their workplace.

What About Teamwork and Productivity?

One of the big benefits of open offices, according to those in favor, is that they increase teamwork and collaboration.

We spoke with Jeff White, co-founder and principal of Kula Partners, a marketing agency with 15 employees and a wide-open floor plan:

“I've never seen collaboration happen as readily and as easily as it does in an open office environment. Watching designers, marketers and developers collaborate informally and frequently is a real joy for me. I can say without question that better work happens when teams work together (especially between disparate departments). This simply doesn't happen when everyone is in their own cubicle or office. Honestly, I feel like this is the one benefit that trumps anything else. But it may only really work in cross-functional teams like ours. And I don't want to ignore the fact that to some people, this is a big part of their problem with open office spaces.”

Interestingly, in some cases, an open office decreases communication. A 2018 study broke ground by using empirical evidence instead of self-reporting. Employees wore analytics badges that tracked conversations. Researchers compared the data against changes in online communication. They found that the amount of face-to-face interaction after transitioning to an open office space plummeted by about 70%. Executives also reported that productivity, as defined by their own metrics, declined after the redesign.

The researchers hypothesized that when everybody is watching you work, you focus more on looking busy even though you are less able to accomplish your tasks.

How Open Offices Affect Well-Being

It might not be reasonable to expect every employee to love everything about their office, but it turns out there is a real danger if the work environment actively frustrates employees.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the constant stress that comes from being unable to properly focus on work can lead to a wide range of detrimental health effects, such as:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Digestive problems
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Sleep problems
  • Weight gain
  • Memory and concentration impairment

In addition, open office layouts may even increase the risk of illness. While only a handful of studies have been conducted, the results suggest that open offices correlate to more sick days taken.

What often goes overlooked is how open office workspaces may affect people with physical or mental disabilities. For example, if the workspace is vast and echoing, an employee with a hearing impairment may have difficulty making out what coworkers are saying. Open offices can also present particular challenges for people with ADHD, traumatic brain injury, or other conditions that affect their executive functioning, says Svea Vikander, a counselor with expertise in ADHD:

“People with inhibited frontal lobe processing struggle to keep their brains from paying attention to the newest stimulus that pops up. So, when Joe from Accounting stands near Nina’s desk to talk to Susan, Nina is no longer paying attention to the task at hand. Things that might seem like very minor distractions to neurotypical people—a friendly ‘Hello’ or playing a video at low volume—can be as distracting to someone with ADHD as a fire alarm. And once their concentration is broken, it takes longer for them to refocus on their task. This puts them at a real disadvantage.”

Making Your Open Office Better and Healthier

So … if you have an open office, how can you reap its benefits while minimizing its drawbacks? Fortunately, with forethought and planning, you can have the best of both worlds. Here are some actionable ways to improve your employees’ open-office experience and their well-being:

Have Quiet Areas

Instead of locating everybody across one big room, consider breaking your open office up into zones. Quiet zones can have sound-absorbing partitions and rugs, as well as a policy of speaking quietly. This allows employees who desperately need to focus to find a quieter environment. On the other side of the office, collaboration zones can bring employees together to brainstorm on projects without disturbing their neighbors.

Offer Remote Work

If your office doesn’t have a remote work policy, now’s the time to implement one. Employees who have the option to work from home may find it’s the best and quietest place to accomplish major tasks. Then, their office time can be used more productively and without any sense of stress or frustration.

Don’t Sit in an Ivory Tower … or Corner Office

If every member of your leadership team has their own office with a door while all the other employees are made to work in an open environment, that’s a quick recipe for resentment, especially if any of those offices are frequently empty due to their occupants being out in the field, like senior sales staff for example. Instead, get out on the floor with staffers and collaborate with them on projects, reserving offices for meetings or for any employee who needs uninterrupted time to focus.

Support Your Employees

Headphones or earplugs are typically a pretty strong “don’t talk to me” signal, but not everybody gets the hint. Have a company-wide meeting to discuss the importance of respecting space and the need to concentrate. For example, if someone is wearing a headset and is on a phone call, employees should be reminded not to carry on conversations near that person.

Managers can help support employees by watching carefully for oblivious and noisy conversationalists parked next to someone who is trying to concentrate. “Companies can also implement systems of communication, such as cubicle/desk cues—something as simple as red paper signs—that indicate when someone is deep in concentration,” says Vikander.

Practice Good Hygiene

In addition to reminding employees to sneeze or cough into their elbow and practice frequent handwashing, employers can reduce communicable illnesses in their open office environment by making desk cleanliness a priority. The Clean Desk challenge can motivate employees to give their desks, keyboards, and computer mice a regular wipe-down. In addition, make sure that employees know that they will be in no way penalized if they stay home when sick, and encourage leadership to model a good example.

Open office spaces can present challenges to employee wellness, but that doesn’t mean employers are doomed to an office full of sick and stressed staffers. Instead, by getting creative and considerate with your open office layout, you can create a welcoming, healthy and productive space that fosters not only exemplary work but exemplary wellness.

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