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The Ugly Truth About Your Office’s Open Floor Plan

Offices with open floor plans are the new normal — it’s hard to find an office these days that has more traditional cubicles for each employee. This is because, for the longest time, open floor plans were marketed as a design that makes employees more efficient and productive. However, a recent study from the minds at Harvard has shown that open floor plan offices are detrimental to productivity.

Let’s take a closer look at this ugly truth and what you can do to restore productivity in an open floor plan office.

Not as Good as It Seems

The idea behind an open office floor plan is to promote communication between employees. Getting rid of the walls should, in theory, make employees more likely to talk to one another.

It did the exact opposite. Instead of increasing conversation, it decreased it by a whopping 70 percent. Emails, on the other hand, increased by anywhere from 22 to 50 percent. The number of text messages sent also increased.

The study followed the employees of two different offices, both before and after they switched to an open office floorplan. Before the transition, employees tended to acquire upwards of five and a half hours of face time with their fellow employees. After the switch, that dropped to 1.7 hours.

Instead of increasing the time spent on collaboration, employees did more solitary work. Rather than promoting teamwork and conversation, the open floor plan separated employees even more than the physical walls did.

Alternatives

In spite of this new and potentially damning evidence, many companies are still opting for the open office floorplan, either because they don’t have the money to change their layout or because they still believe the concept is beneficial to their employees.

What alternatives could these offices use to help improve productivity? Plenty of design options have been proven to work. The Hub and Spokes design, for example, provides a centralized area for meetings and socialization, as well as individual offices throughout hallways that serve as the spokes.

If collaboration is an integral part of your office functions, having a communal area like a hub provides a space for your team to work together. At the same time, you’re giving your staff members more privacy in their offices or cubicles. After all, these studies show employees do their best and most productive work when they are uninterrupted.

Productivity Is Key

You can still be productive in an open floor plan office — it just might require a bit of extra effort. Open office spaces can be noisy, with everyone talking to each other, to customers or simply to themselves. A good pair of noise-canceling headphones and some focusing music can help you block out the chatter and make it easier to concentrate, even in a crowded room.

Changing your meetings can make it easier to be productive, as well. Informal stand-up meetings — where you and your coworkers stand around and talk rather than having a planned, formal meeting — can help you get more done.

Informal meetings are beneficial because you don’t need to schedule them into your day — they can take place anytime everyone has free minute — and you don’t need a particular room to conduct them. Just take a quick break, have a meeting and get back to work without interrupting the flow of your day. There’s no need to jump through hoops like taking minutes or making it all official.

Having office space — even if you share it with other people who might need a quiet place to work now and then — can help improve productivity. If being in the open office proves too distracting for an important project or a short deadline, having a quiet place to retreat to can be a blessing.

How Are Companies Reacting?

This hasn’t stopped some companies from embracing the open floor plan office for their own uses. The Couchsurfing office, for example, has swings and sofas set up for their employees to use during the day.

Dropbox’s office doesn’t even have desks, preferring large open spaces, comfortable chairs and individual rooms for private meetings. Evernote’s offices feature lofty ceilings, communal desks with smaller private rooms that one can retreat to if needed.

Meanwhile, Google has some of the most randomly designed office spaces in their offices around the world. In Zurich, they have beehive-shaped pods for meetings, as well as an indoor gym where you can play basketball or soccer indoors. In Washington, their open office spaces feature things like rock climbing walls right in the office.

While these unique office spaces might work for some larger companies, in general, they present a problem for productivity. If you need to collaborate, create communal areas — don’t turn your office into one big communal space, or you will see your productivity suffer.

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Also published on Medium.