Are “Open” Offices as Efficient as we Expected?

When the concept of an Open office (no cubes or doors; all of the desks in one open area) was first introduced, didn’t it look like fun to work in that environment? Designers probably expected that this would foster communication and make the office more worker-friendly. Are Open offices as efficient as we expected?

In my own company office, it was important to me that Customer Service Reps be able to hear each other on the phone with clients. Then, if one had already spoken to someone about an issue or if one didn’t have an answer that another one had, they could hear each other and we could handle the client’s issue in one phone call. Likewise, if the sales and support people could hear each other, they could also share info while one was on the phone and also resolve issues more efficiently. Still, it was important for some to have offices to meet with clients and to have privacy when they needed it for sensitive matters, or so as not to disturb others. Of course, we had the luxury of a small office, where you could have more open lines of communication just by leaving your office door open.

The concept of the Open office had a couple of perceived advantages:

  • was more “fun” (all the desks in a room – the foosball table was in the corner)
  • perceived as more creative and on-trend
  • took away the hierarchy of office or cubicle size or placement
  • was intended to increase in-person communication since the walls were literally taken down
  • could fit more employees into a given space

As in everything, timing is important. The Open-office concept coincided with the entrance of Millennials and Gen Z into the workforce, and the increased dependence on mobile devices in everyday communication – including texting and instant messaging, which was suddenly not just for personal use anymore.

A recent study  found that most employees do not like the open office plan.  Rather than increase face-to-face communication, employees spent 73% LESS time in personal interactions, while the use of email and instant messenger increased by 67% – 75%.  The study found that much of the employee’s day is spent in headphones trying to escape the noise around them and attempting to exert some measure of control over their environment. Open office floor plans also limits employees to the space on their desks. There are no walls, shelves or other areas in which to spread out or display personal items or work-related awards.

Open-office floor plans typically include multiple conference rooms and places for privacy, however, many employees think twice about using them. The days of ducking into someone’s office or cube to correct them privately or ask for direction on a project are gone. Asking an employee to join you in the conference room now captures attention and can set off a flurry of curiousity about what’s going on behind that closed door.

Still thinking the idea of an Open office sounds cool? Do you work (or have you worked) in one? What is your experience?