Originally designed in the 1950s by a team in Hamburg, Germany, the open office layout was meant to facilitate communication between workers and foster the flow of new ideas. Since then, it has become so popular that reportedly nearly 70 percent of all offices in the U.S. now have an open layout. Companies redesigned their closed office interiors to open up space, in order to encourage teamwork and collaboration among employees.
However, recent studies have shown that open offices can lead to lower productivity levels, more distractions, and frustrated workers. A recent article in The New Yorker claims that “a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.” What’s worse, another recent study in the journal Environment & Behavior concluded that noise and cognitive performance are negatively correlated, which means that the noise and distractions prevalent in open offices are diminishing worker performance.
The decrease in productivity caused by open office layouts can be attributed to several different factors, including:
With so many cons stacked against it, it’s hard to think there could be benefits to having an open office layout. Yet there are some pros to this type of setup. Take its originally intended purpose—open offices can make employees feel symbolically closer to the company’s mission and goals. They’re also more likely to feel part of a team, which can be conducive to more productive teamwork.
Open office designs, especially in recent years, give off a “cool” and laid-back feel. They’ve been popularized by TV shows and movies where trendy people toting lattes and messenger bags work in big loft-like offices, floating among steel desks and exposed brick walls. As such, the open office tends to attract younger workers, a plus if you consider this for your recruiting purposes as a way to attract bright, young talent.
Its modern and dynamic feel can also be considered a marketing asset. When customers or clients step into a new, open office, they get a sense that the company is with the times, innovative, and cutting-edge. All of the hustle and bustle of workers at their desks—on the phone, talking with each other, typing on their computers—helps to give an air of productivity.
All of this being said, some jobs are certainly better-suited for open spaces than others. For instance, companies that conduct sales benefit from the open office or “bullpen” environment. Hearing their peers on the phone making sales can serve to challenge workers to keep up or surpass them. Competitiveness takes over, and in this scenario that’s a very good thing.
Jobs in the news and the PR industry can also benefit from an open setup. A newsroom is open to encourage workers to share stories with one another. In the world of the Internet and instant news, even taking the time to open your office door can slow you down too much.
Considering the recent studies linking noise to decreased performance, yet valuing the promise of the open office setup, it may be time for you to reexamine your space and determine the ideal layout that would best serve both your company’s and your employees’ needs.