Does open-plan get the worst out of workers?

The open-plan office was a German ideal. But the concept has become inhumane

Is it time to close the door on open-plan offices? Had enough of overhearing your colleagues’ intimate phone calls, their questionable personal hygiene and the way they eat their lunch really loudly?

You are not alone. Most of us may work in open-plan offices in which we’re cheek by jowl with co-workers, but few of us are happy about it.

According to a survey of more than 10,000 workers across 14 countries, published in September 2014, a lack of privacy is the number one complaint from workers.

The study was conducted by market researcher Ipsos on behalf of the rather bizarrely named furniture company Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase. It suggests that, after decades of having to put up with open-plan offices and an unrelenting push to introduce shared workspaces, employees have had enough.


The research found that 85 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with their working environment and said they could not concentrate in the office. In addition, 31 per cent said they often left work so that they could focus on projects that needed to be completed.

Office workers said they were losing as much as 86 minutes a day due to distractions – with the result that many felt unmotivated, unproductive and overly stressed. Perhaps not surprisingly, open office spaces have been found to be a serious drag, both in terms of productivity and in creative thinking.

Self-contained management

No one who has ever worked in an open-plan office will be surprised by these findings. There is a reason why management-level staff usually like to have their own offices. It is simply because it is less distracting and therefore easier to work.

However, with as many as 70 per cent of office layouts in the US defined as open plan and a likely similar percentage here in Ireland, some are wondering why we are still designing our workspaces in this way, particularly when we live in an increasingly mobile world.

It is not just our sanity that is at risk. A 2011 study of 2,403 employees by Jan Pejtersen and colleagues from the Danish National Centre for Social Research finds that open-plan offices are also bad for our physical health.

According to the study, the amount of time employees spend out on sick leave is related to the number of colleagues with whom they work closely.

The findings reveal that workers in two-person offices had 50 per cent more days of sickness absence than those working on their own.

Occupants in offices containing between three and six people had 36 per cent more days out, while those in open-plan offices had 62 per cent more days of sick leave.

Dr Joan Tiernan, a lecturer at UCD school of psychology and formerly director of the university's MA in work and organisational psychology, is not surprised by the study findings. She says it is well-known that open-plan offices are bad for business, but that in the US, Britain and in Ireland, we still cannot seem to get enough of them.

"Burolandschaft or office landscaping was a movement that originated in Germany in the 1950s which, when adopted by architects in the US and UK, became something very different from what was originally conceived. "Initially it was much more about having what seemed like random clusters of desks slotted together, but which were in fact based on observed patterns of interaction between workers. It was thought that grouping desks together based on the most prevalent patterns of communication would bring individuals closer together."

While this may have been an improvement on the more hierarchical layouts that had existed before, it was quickly rejected in Germany and other parts of mainland Europe, as workers revolted against the idea of being forced together in this manner.

Remaining popular

Dublin architect Nikki O’Donnell, who led the redesign of the Morrison Hotel in Dublin and who has also designed workspaces for the likes of Microsoft, Mellon Bank, SMBC and Fineos, gives one key reason why open-plan offices took off in the US and UK and remain popular.

“From a financial perspective you can get more bums on seats in the open-plan layout,” she says. “It is easier and cheaper to heat and cool and cheaper to fit out than having the same number of people in enclosed offices.”

An added bonus was that employers could still keep a beady eye on staff, although, as Tiernan points out, that isn’t always a good thing.

“Keeping an eye on employees is very much a double-edged sword because, if people feel like they’re under surveillance, it impacts on their performance. Outside of noise considerations, one of the biggest disadvantages or open-plan layouts is the lack of privacy that people feel.”

George Boyle, an architect who also founded the Fumbally Exchange, a not- for-profit organisation that offers a low- cost base and collaboration opportunities for businesses, believes the open-plan office is not without its flaws. However, she stresses that one of the appeals of this layout is that it increases connectivity between employees, both on a social and creative level.

“Open offices can improve innovation, intrapreneurship and casual encounter-driven creativity,” she says. “While the attention span issue is a real one, it can be managed by a good work ethos, management principles and workspace etiquette.”

Boyle suggests many open offices are designed in a way that mirrors the mistakes made when high-rise developments were constructed without any thought for community areas and facilities.

“Unfortunately, the way open layouts generally work does not permit the balance areas that are essential for productive human functioning – such as breakout and quiet spaces, private zones for phone calls, meeting rooms for scaled groups and so on. Open offices work excellently if these balance areas are provided. but if you ‘rack ’em and stack ’em’ with no place for people to chill out, then you’re going to have unhappy, stressed and distracted workers,” Boyle adds.

Comfortable environment

As an organisational psychologist employed by the ESB,

Jennifer Grogan

knows all about trying to create a comfortable working environment for staff. She believes that the working environment must complement the tasks being undertaken at any one time.

“There’s no one-size-fits-all solution in terms of creating the right office space,” she says. “People tend to work in extremes, sometimes needing quiet and solitude and at others wanting to engage with others, so it’s about finding the middle ground.”

The ESB has itself tried to adapt to the need of its workforce to find different environments, constructing a creative hub- cum-meeting room at its offices and seeking feedback from employees on what will help them work better.

“In our experience ,it’s all about consulting staff about how they best work, and then testing things out,” she says.

Grogan believes that a mixed office environment, at which people sometimes work together and sometimes apart, can also help individuals better ignore pesky cultural norms that lead people to act in ways they might not want to. She notes as an example the stress that can be created by the need to conform to particular unwritten rules within groups, such as eating lunch at your desk or staying in work late because others do.

Meanwhile, O’Donnell says that with open-plan remaining the most efficient use of space, we are unlikely to see it disappear anytime soon.

“Open plan is and will be part of 90 per cent of companies’ office layouts. Having said that,” she adds, “companies I have worked with do recognise that a balance is needed so that there are different spaces for employees to work. So they usually provide open and closed meeting rooms, private work zones and break-out areas, meaning that these open-plan offices embrace more alternative areas.”

O’Donnell says that sitting at a desk all day long is usually no longer necessary or desired and that with work patterns becoming less hierarchical and team working the norm, there is still a place for the open-plan office.