The Demise of the Open Office

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Oct 29, 2018 | News

This weeks blog comes courtesy of Zenbooth, an office phone booth manufacturer located in the USA.

The Demise of the Open Office

The open office concept has emerged as the dominant design style over the past generation. Many companies saw a chance to reduce overhead while also jumping on board with what was seen as a positive trend, but is now becoming regarded as a destructive fad.

Open offices generally put all, or almost all, of a company’s staff in a single, large room. Sometimes employees receive cubicle offices, but these provide little respite from general workplace noise levels. 

When companies began embracing the concept in the mid 2000’s, the initial reports about the impact of open offices tended to be positive, especially with younger workers. As time has passed and serious studies completed, the open office has proven to be an inconvenience for many workers and a nightmare for others.

Background of the Open Office Plan

Some American offices have had the open office concept for over a century. Both police departments and major metropolitan newspapers had office styles often called “bullpens.” It should be noted, however, that many occupants of these desks performed most of their work out of the office and on the streets.

In the 1950s, German businesses started to experiment with the concept of an open office space. They postulated that removing walls would assist in collaboration by forcing staff to communicate and remain open to communication from others at all times. Innovation from collaboration would generate new ideas and elevate productivity.

Starting in the 1960s, American companies began to examine and implement the open office concept. By the turn of the century, it had grown into the dominant office design. Trendy tech companies embraced it, and the media reported that it was popular among young office workers. 

Add this to the fact that open office spaces cost less to build and operate than traditional workplaces and there was little incentive to look into any reports of their ineffectiveness. 

Visual Distractions Run Amok in Open Offices

Visual distractions can plague an office. Work tasks often require focusing on detailed or unfamiliar material. This leaves the worker looking for an escape from an en environment that disrupts their ability to focus.

Anything in an office, even a traditional one, can create visual distractions. But open offices create distractions that lay outside of an individual’s ability to control. A person walking by, having a seat too close to the break area, or a video playing on a colleagues computer screen, can pull the eyes and mind away from work, disturbing productivity.

Audio Distractions Make Intense Focus Impossible

Even worse are issues with audio distractions. Offices with cubicles do provide a slight escape from visual interruptions, but cannot block out the serious problems created by background noise.

The typical drone of office noises, including copiers, ringing phones, and coworker conversations can create stress-induced reactions that lower a person’s immune system and ramp up their irritability. 

Studies show that office communication about work-related topics takes place at the same rate in traditional or open offices. One difference in open offices, however, comes from the inability to block out chatter regarding topics outside of your project or your job. 

Too many open office employees see the lack of barriers as an invitation to talk about any subject at any time. Whether an individual has the conversation directed at them or overhears it, these can create distractions that take valuable time away from staff.

The Difficulty of Restoring Concentration and the Bottom Line

Research indicates that once an individual loses concentration on a difficult task, it could take over 20 minutes to restore it. When you take into account that unwanted breaks in concentration are likely to occur several times per day, this adds up to hours of lost work.

A report presented at a recent conference of the Acoustical Societies of America and Japan reaffirm what many others have already concluded. Noises and conversations that are not relevant to work can produce distractions that erode significantly at the productive time spent in the office.

While the study did not focus, as others, on how the lack of productivity makes the open office more costly than a traditional design, it does bolster the point that many individuals have a difficult time staying focused and productive in an open office environment.

How the New “Agile Office” Can Help

For most companies, the open office genie cannot go back into the bottle. Office designs require a significant investment of time and money to construct. Few companies, large or small, have the resources to completely reconstruct their workspace, even if those workspaces prove to reduce productivity.

Companies can, however, adapt the space they have to help provide private workspaces for employees when they need them most. Small secluded workspaces or portable meeting rooms can give workers the privacy they need to complete a project, hold a group discussion, take an important phone call, or simply escape the cacophony of the noisy modern office.

While agile offices do not restore the sense of privacy of the old traditional office, they do provide private space at a lower cost while helping to reduce distraction-related productivity problems.