Good or bad, open office is here to stay

FM newsroom – office design. There is constant disagreement about the impact open office designs have on productivity. As it seems to stay, the question should not be about the merits of this workplace design but rather how to make it work for everyone.


Pros and cons, and cons…

Open office originates from 19th century America when the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of large, factory-like office buildings. These early office spaces were designed to maximize efficiency and minimize costs. In the early 20th century, architects and designers began to experiment with different layouts to create a more flexible and adaptable workspace. By the mid-20th century, the open office had become the dominant office design in America, and it remains a popular choice for many organizations today – senior project manager in acoustics for Stantec Consulting Services, Scott Hamilton gives a historical insight for Propmodo.


While company leaders often claim improved productivity and collaboration, cost savings and reduced construction expenses as benefits of an open office, these observations are often made looking out from an executive office doorway, Hamilton points out. When employees – with firsthand experiences – are asked their opinions, the drawbacks like increased noise and distractions, lack of privacy, and loss of personal space easily outnumber the benefits.


The productivity myth

Until relatively recently, when exploring the challenges of the open office design, productivity was mostly evaluated subjectively. Putting teams together with few physical barriers would intuitively lead to more spontaneous interactions, greater project coordination, and more overall communication.


Recent studies, however, take a more quantitative look at the situation. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a 14% drop in performance occurs when a worker moves from a traditional office to an open activity-based workplace. However, moving from the nosier open space to a quiet office environment, cognitive performance increased significantly by 16.%, and performance increased by 21.9%. The study emphasizes the importance of companies providing optional areas or rooms free of distractions for employees working on tasks that demand greater concentration – Hamilton writes.


Here to stay – How to handle?

Open office design seems to be staying with us for more. The question is how to make it work for everyone.


The use of headphones in today’s open offices is a widespread tactic to create personal space. While some managers even encourage it, as they see the resulting increase in concentration and a drop in stress and frustration, there are downsides to using headphones in the workplace as well. It can appear antisocial or unprofessional and close people off from any collaboration. Clear communication and agreement about the acceptable use of headphones by employees can help avoid many of these issues – Hamilton advises.


A better approach could be just to make offices less noisy. Consulting with a qualified acoustics expert can be a great first step in solving problems before they happen. A thorough study of office layout and the location of individuals can help address sound issues and other problems of open office environments. Such an examination could reveal the need for more separate office spaces that can be reserved and it might also recommend designated areas for group workers with similar noise and distraction tolerances.


There is no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution to creating the perfect office environment. Office design will continue to evolve, and attention to acoustics will play a growing role.


The future office needs to be a place that offers and supports all the things we missed during lockdown: face-to-face interactions, team bonding, mentoring opportunities, spontaneous collaboration sessions, and the serendipity of new ideas sparked by unplanned conversations. Building owners and company leaders have a unique opportunity to reimagine these spaces to be as welcoming, healthy, and supportive as possible. Paying attention to acoustics will play a big part in these improvements.


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