Open plan working environments are nothing new, with open-plan offices in one from or another dominating workspaces for open plan office spaces have grown steadily in popularity over the last decade, with up to 75% of office workers now working in open plan style spaces where there is no physical division between colleagues. Open plan offices were first introduced in big tech companies like Google and Apple to encourage collaboration and communication between colleagues by creating shared working environments.
But does it actually work? There have been many studies conducted over the past few years, and the answer has been fairly consistent. Not really.
So why do they exist?
Tear down walls, remove divisional cubicles, abolish separate private offices for senior management, and what do you get?
Collaboration? One of the main factors driving businesses towards open plan offices. The thought is that they foster team spirit, a more open and social working environment where colleagues can openly discuss ideas without attending formal meetings or scheduling time to collaborate.
Happiness? It is a well researched fact that happy workers are at least 13% more productive. Open plan allows social barriers and even hierarchical barriers to be lowered, which can assist in unifying the work place and improve happiness within the office.
Creativity? With everyone sitting so closely together, ideas can be easily shared with colleagues in an instant and brainstorming becomes a part of everyday working life. Or does it?
Productivity? The early modern day adopters of the open plan office believed that (perceived) easier collaboration, happier employees and facilitation of the creative process would undoubtedly result in increased productivity, and of course profitability.
Cheaper operating costs? Open plan offices will undoubtedly save your company some money, with less office equipment and utilities used. Open offices also generally pack more bodies into the office, reducing the square footage required.
Do they actually work?
Researchers have argued that the perceived “benefits” of open plan offices are largely mythical. Whilst originally intended to facilitate communication and improve flow of ideas and conversation between workers, certain studies has proven that most employees actually dislike open offices, and are less productive as a result. Not only do many workers not studies have consistently debunked their valued selling points, and in fact they actually reduce productivity and staff morale.
But why don’t they work?
Lack of Face-to-Face interaction. In a study by Harvard Business School, open office spaces were proven to reduce face to face interactions by approximately 70%. Rather than increasing verbal communication and collaboration between team members, open offices actually trigger a withdrawal from physical interaction, towards virtual communication. Email and instant messaging takes it place instead.
Lack of Privacy. Personal space and privacy are considered key factors influencing a slump in communication, collaboration and productivity in open plan offices. People instinctively enjoy having control over their environment, and open plan offices limit employees ability to set up their working space as they would like. A lack of privacy can also force employees to hold back their true thoughts and opinions while on calls, or when talking in the office because they don’t want to be judged by their co-workers.
Increase Stress and Illness. A study conducted by the Queensland University of Technology found that working in open office environments increased stress, conflict and resulted in high staff turnover. Excess noise in open offices can effect the overall health and well-being of employees, resulting in more sick days being taken.
Distractions are everywhere. Phones ringing, colleagues on the phone, pen clickers, loud typers, private conversations among employees. All noise can cause a disruption to your concentration, and it takes a certain amount of time to regain that full concentration. Noise is often an afterthought during the office design process. That’s where we come in.
How can we make them better?
Open plan offices are here to stay, with 73% of all offices in the UK considered to be open plan. Whilst academic research tends to point towards them being ineffective, bad for productivity and health, we continue to do the bulk of our work within open plan offices.
We can’t control whether employees choose to talk to each other, or send an email instead. What we can do, is improve the sound environment of the office.
Acoustics are often overlooked during the office design process, with emphasis placed on layouts, amenities and technology usually taking high priority. The ability to focus without interruptions is a top priority for employees, above access to amenities like free food, drinks, technology etc.
Comprehensive acoustic treatment can drastically improve the acoustic comfort of the office, which can alleviate a lot of the issues which researchers have outlined.
Noise within the office is one of the most significant distractions, whilst also having an affect on workers well-being and productivity. Noise stresses us out. Sound waves travel through open areas for extended periods of time, resulting in high reverberation times which can become frustrating without effective open plan office acoustic considerations. So how can we control it when there are so many sounds bouncing around?
Open Plan Offices
It can be a challenge to create good open plan office acoustics with balanced noise levels. Open environments always present significant design and analysis to develop an acoustic solution which removes or alleviates some of the distracting noise within the office. Total silence is not necessary, in fact it can be beneficial to have some sound which is audible within the office environment. This requires us to take a more holistic approach to the acoustic products we choose for open plan offices, with a combination of solutions required to create the best working environment.
For open plan offices, we always recommend a combination of both sound absorption and sound masking to counteract the multiple sources of distracting noise within the office.
Refers to the method of controlling sound by installing absorbing materials that soak up sound energy travelling with the room, lowering noise levels. This makes up a high percentage of the work that we do. Quality sound absorbing products can reduce noise from sound within the space by up to 90%, which completely transforms the feel of the office.
Acoustic Wall Panels
We install acoustic panels on walls every day in open plan offices which drastically enhance the acoustic performance and comfort of the space. View some of the options below.
Acoustic Ceiling Rafts & Baffles
We also install hanging acoustic rafts and baffles from ceilings, which can prevent excess noise bouncing around in open ceilings which are very common in modern, open plan offices. Below are some of the latest products.
Another method of dealing with varying noise levels within a space. In a way it is the physical opposite to sound absorption, as it actually fills the space with ambient noise rather than taking it away. Quality sound masking systems emit pre-programmed, frequency appropriate sound through carefully placed speakers, in an attempt to drown out or ‘mask’ other noises in the office. Our systems will also automatically detect changes in noise level and increase the volume of the masking sound to reduce the distraction to those working in the space.
The masking sound is shaped to match the human hearing spectrum, meaning that noises that are the most distracting, like speech, are covered and blended into the background. This is particularly effective in open plan offices where multiple conversations can be taking place at the one time. This can also give employees a greater sense of privacy, as they know that others won’t always be able to hear their potentially private conversations. For an in depth explanation of sound masking, visit out information page.
Do you need both?
For the optimal open plan working environment that employees actually want to work in, we would always recommend both sound absorption and sound masking. With just absorption products, the office will seem quieter when there is little noise being made, no one is talking or typing. But as soon as there is added noise from phones, keyboards and conversations, acoustic panels can only do so much. With the addition of sound masking, these periods of extra sound will be controlled by the system, ensuring minimal distraction to those working within the office. With only sound masking in a space which has little or no acoustic absorption, the masking sound will also reverberate off any hard surfaces, resulting in an uncomfortable office.
To sum up:
Can open plan offices be productive?
To make open-plan offices truly productive, organisations need to foster new modes of interaction, rather than leaning so heavily on faceless digital communication such as email or instant messaging. This is particularly important in larger companies, where not everyone will know everyone on a personal level. Just sitting in the same office with someone doesn’t develop a strong relationship, whether personal or professional.
What we can do is improve working environment of open plan offices using acoustic treatment. Our systems work to reduce the distractions in the office, increase speech privacy, and improve the overall comfort of the office. These factors are all considered to be drawbacks of open plan office designs, but our work can offset these to create a much better working environment.
- “Happy workers are 13% more productive”. Oxford University. N.p., 2020. Web. 6 Oct 2020. URL: https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2019-10-24-happy-workers-are-13-more-productive
- “Everyone hates open offices. Here’s why they still exist” Fast Company. N.p., 2020. Web. 7 Oct 2020. URL: https://www.fastcompany.com/90285582/everyone-hates-open-plan-offices-heres-why-they-still-exist
- “The impact of the “open” workspace on human collaboration” Harvard Business School. N.p., 5 Oct 2020. URL: https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239
- “When the walls come down”. Oxford Economics. N.p., 2020. Web. 6 Oct 2020. URL: https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/when-the-walls-come-down
- “Open-Plan Work Spaces Lower Productivity and Employee Morale” Forbes N.p., 2020. Web. 7 Oct 2020. URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jiawertz/2019/06/30/open-plan-work-spaces-lower-productivity-employee-morale
- “Are open-plan office bad for work?” CFO Daily News N.p., 5 Oct 2020. URL: https://www.cfodailynews.com/articles/are-open-plan-offices-bad-for-work/