Open Office Spaces – Do They Really Work? - American Society of Employers - Mary E. Corrado

Open Office Spaces – Do They Really Work?

Working at ASE over the last 26 years has given me the opportunity to visit many employers in Michigan.  It’s always interesting to see the many different work environments our members have.  One, however, stresses me out just walking through it: the open office space; and I don’t even have to work in it!  Those giving me a tour are always so proud of their “new” environment, but I’ve never been able to imagine ASE, a 114-year old conservative company, with an open office concept.  This made me wonder what the research says about this trend.

Most of you know I am a “card carrying” introvert; however, I would think this causes extroverts some angst too.  I’ve always wondered why anyone thought it was a good idea to remove all privacy from employees.  Did they ever consider asking the employees their opinion?  I think most people would prefer a wall, or even half a wall!  As an introvert, I thrive on quiet and privacy.  I would not be able to function as well in a wide open work environment.  I think leadership needs to consider all personality types before proceeding with such an impactful decision as moving to an open office space for all.  I also think that the type of job one has makes a difference.  Open environments seem more fitting in high-tech or creative environments where constant collaboration and feeding off one another’s energy is important.  Start-ups are famous for open environments, and again I can see how this is beneficial in a startup company with only a few employees.

After doing some research, I found that these open environments aren’t accomplishing what office designers intended them to do.  Employees have become vocal about their dissatisfaction in these office layouts.  I read an article entitled “9 Reasons That Open-Space Offices Are Insanely Stupid” and I have to say that I agreed with everything it said.  Here is a rundown:

1.       They decrease productivity.
Turns out that open offices don’t increase collaboration or make employees more productive.  An Exeter University study showed they actually create a 32% drop in “workers well-being” and a 15% reduction in productivity.

2.       They make employees miserable.
A recent study by Steelcase revealed that 95% of employees say working privately is important to them, but only 41% of those respondents were able to do so.  31% said they had to leave the office to accomplish that.

3.       They create time-consuming distractions.
Employees in an open office plan lose an average of 86 minutes per day due to distractions.  There is no closing a door to work “heads down” on a project.  The Steelcase study showed that this causes employees to feel unmotivated and be less productive.

4.       They make employees sick.
A study by the Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation found that open office environments cause “high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.”

5.       They result in more sick days.
Employees in open workplaces take more sick days.  Employees in open environments take 62% more sick days than those with private work spaces, according to The New Yorker.

6.       They communicate a lack of trust.
Employees perceive the switch to open work areas as a manager’s desire to have the ability to watch over workers at all times.  Nobody likes to be micromanaged, and even if this isn’t the reasoning behind moving to the open concept, it’s often perceived to be.

7.       They create vast political turmoil.
This is unavoidable.  Most open spaces still have a few offices on reserve.  So who gets them?  No matter how you come to this decision, someone’s ego will be burst.

8.       They blunt your highly-paid brainpower.
This one might be my favorite.  Studies have shown that senior engineers, bankers, and people working in financial services find open environments especially challenging, in particular, when working on complex tasks.  How can high-level positions like these be expected to focus with so much going on around them?  And that is not to say that low or mid-level positions don’t often deal with complexities that require focus too.  I think we need to respect all levels and realize that most jobs require quiet times to concentrate.

9.       They cost MORE than private offices.
I have to admit this one struck me as odd, until I read deeper into it.  They might cost less to build, but the overall costs associated with the reduced productivity in an open office environment causes a net loss in the end.

I think it’s time we all just be honest—employees deserve to have their own workplaces.  I realize not everyone can have a private office–space just doesn’t allow for that.  But I think that we as leaders owe it to our employees to provide them with a comfortable, somewhat private area to complete their work in everyday.  What do you think?  Have any of you made the switch to an open concept?  Has it been positive or negative?  I’d love to hear from you.  Email me at [email protected].


I want you to know I value your feedback.  I had several of you write me about your opinions or experience with no-meeting work days.  I found it interesting that none of you that responded were currently practicing no-meeting days, but several did offer “quiet time” in the morning hours where employees were not to be disturbed.  Perhaps a nice compromise to consider.

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