The Price of Collaboration: Open Office Environments and Employee Productivity

Several employees working in an open office space - imageThe open office trend has reached dangerous levels. Nearly 70 percent of offices have open layouts that are characterized by areas with no partitions and cubicles with low or high partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. However, open office workers are less satisfied with their surroundings, stress levels and productivity.

Even the primary employee benefit of open offices — collaboration — is in question. Although workers’ accessibility to colleagues and team members is an assumed advantage for open offices, field research rejects this hypothesis. Some contend that open plans actually discourage communication among colleagues and team members, due to a lack of confidentiality. A study of more than 42,000 people revealed that open office workers were more dissatisfied with “ease of interaction” than those in enclosed offices.

As the open office trend increases in popularity, so too does the understanding of its shortcomings. A number of studies offer insight into how the open office environment distracts employees and negatively impacts their health, productivity and job satisfaction.

Distraction in Open Offices

Too Much Noise

There is little doubt that noise is the primary culprit for distraction in open offices. In an analysis of more than 100 studies, the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology said that noise “has often been reported as the greatest issue of dissatisfaction that staff raise when questioned about their open-plan work environments.”

Noise was the main indoor environmental problem in open offices, according to a 2008 survey of workers in private rooms and open offices led by Annu Haapakangas. Half of open office workers were dissatisfied with office noise, compared to 20 percent of those in private rooms. Although telephone sounds and other office noise was distracting, speech was particularly frustrating — 48 percent of respondents said it was the most distracting source of office noise. Employees on average wasted 21.5 minutes per day due to conversational distractions, making speech the top cause of reduced productivity.

Speech makes concentrating in open offices virtually impossible. “We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations, so if you’re listening to one conversation particularly you’re only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write,” sound expert Julian Treasure said in a TechRadar interview. Treasure estimates that workers in open offices are 66 percent less productive than when working privately.

Employees may have little recourse in blocking office noise with music or white noise. A review of research published in Psychology of Music found that while background music can improve one’s emotions, it negatively impacts the reading process and memory. White noise was an improvement on typical office noise conditions in an Environment and Behavior study, but subjects in “the no noise group performed best on a measure of cognitive complexity and were the least disturbed and stressed by the environment.”

Blocking office noise may still be preferable. Headphones are a popular way to regain control of noise in open offices, even if it ironically comes at the cost of collaboration. Control is vital. An article in the Journal of Applied Psychology argues that uncontrollable noise is associated with decreased motivation. When given control over noise, individuals can “largely ameliorate the aftereffects of noise.” As a result, the learned helplessness of uncontrollable noise is combated, perhaps offering employees a choice of the lesser evil.

Lack of Privacy

Privacy is an important consideration in any workplace environment because a sense of privacy boosts job performance. When workers aren’t isolated from their surroundings, they can feel a lack of privacy and control over their workspace.

According to the Journal of Architectural and Planning Research, sharing facilities and workspace with others can lead to a psychological state known as crowding, which affects behavior. Risks in the open office — including interactions, noise, unwanted observation and printers in the common workspace — undermine privacy and comfort. As a result, these factors can cause office workers to “have difficulty concentrating, react negatively to interactions and become dissatisfied with their job.”

Ergonomics comes to a similar conclusion, in a review of 49 open office studies: “Strong evidence was established that working in open workplaces reduces the office worker’s psychological privacy and job satisfaction.”

Dissatisfaction Levels of Open Office Employees - bar graph

Other Problems With Open Offices

Health

Research demonstrates that open offices contribute to stress. Although studies are limited on overall employee health and well-being, early indications point to a negative impact.

A study in Environment and Behavior found that workers in small- and medium-sized open offices had the lowest self-rated health status. The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health reported that workers in open offices had the most days of absence due to sickness than any other type of office. Compared to private offices, open office workers took 62 percent more days off.

An Ergonomics study on office design and sick leave rates discovered that open office workers were most likely to take short-term sick leave. This could be due to an increased risk for the spread of infection or exposure to environmental stressors such as distracting noise and lack of privacy.

Productivity

In open offices, disruptions are more common than in traditional offices. Consequently, productivity is impaired in a number of ways.

  • Subjects made twice as many errors after a brief interruption of 2.8 seconds (Journal of Experimental Psychology).
  • It took people an average of 25 minutes and 26 seconds to return to work following an interruption, when resuming work on the same day (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems).
  • Complex tasks take “an additional 15 minutes to regain the same intense focus or ‘flow’ as before the interruption,” based on a study in the productivity book Peopleware (The Wall Street Journal).
  • Workers who are interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish their work (Laraine Flemming, Reading for Results).
  • People who are externally disrupted often enter into a “chain of distraction” that involves activities such as checking email, instant messaging and browsing (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems).

Haapakangas found in his research that open office attempts to cope with noise “reflected risk factors to individual productivity and well-being, such as taking extra breaks, compromising the quality of work, working overtime and exerting oneself harder.” Noise alone caused open office workers to waste twice as much time as those in private offices.

Job Satisfaction

Miscellaneous office items - imageOpen offices have a negative effect on employee satisfaction. Ergonomics noted a strong link between working in an open office and reduced job satisfaction. And as Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear wrote in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction.”

A study in Environment and Behavior followed 21 employees who were relocated from traditional offices to open offices. Four weeks after the move, employees were not happy with their environment, stress levels, coworker relations and perceived job performance. Six months after the move, they were still unhappy and team relations broke down further.

How Business Leaders Can Respond

After studying office noise and its relationship to employee performance and well-being, Happakangas concludes that “private rooms are superior to open offices in all respects.” Kim and de Dear found that workers in enclosed offices had the least amount of frustration. However, companies and business leaders can take steps to address the challenges that open offices present.

One solution is to strongly consider how the space relates to a person’s job. “As periods of individual work and telephone conversations are still predominant in most office professions, open offices do not provide sufficient acoustic, visual and psychological privacy for typical office work,” Happakangas wrote. To make the open office model work, businesses need to have more private areas that allow workers to focus on projects with maximum privacy.

Another solution that’s gaining traction in workplaces is the ability to work from home. As reported by Harvard Business Review, a study of employees at a Chinese travel agency showed that those who worked from home were happier, less likely to quit and more productive. This study is an example of growing research indicating that working from home can be beneficial for both employers and employees.

For business leaders, work environment policies join topics such as planning, motivation and teamwork. Because employee productivity and job satisfaction is holistic, leaders are urged to pursue ways to make a positive impact. One important step is found in education, where business leaders can get the skills and knowledge needed to influence the workplace. At Rivier University, an online MBA offers graduates knowledge of core business concepts — such as project management, strategies of innovation and more — to develop a better understanding of the industry and what’s needed for success.