The shocking impact of open plan offices

The case for open plan offices is a compelling one and is constantly being debated. The idea is that open plan offices create more collaboration, ideas can be freely exchanged. Teams also have a better opportunity to bond. As a result of this view, open plan offices have become commonplace. But is this right? A number of studies have now highlighted the negative aspects of the open plan office and state that it does not always achieve what it sets out to do. In fact, tearing down walls and cubicles in offices may actually build up more barriers to productivity and employee interaction

The studies

There have always been those who believed open plan offices did the opposite of what was intended. This view has now been backed up by scientific research from Harvard in the US and Karlstadt University in Sweden. Comparing interactions before and after a move to an open plan office, the studies showed that in an open plan office:

  • There was 73% less face-to-face time
  • Email use increased by 67%
  • Instant messenger use increased by 75%

It is speculated that the reason for this shift is that in an open plan office, some workers may be using headphones to reduce distraction. It is also noted that some conversations may need to be carried out in private, and with this proving impossible in an open plan office, the employees are instead using digital communication.

Reduced efficiency

An Ipsos survey casts further doubt on the benefits of open plan offices. It found that:

  • 85% were dissatisfied with their workplace and found it hard to concentrate
  • 95% said working privately was important
  • Only 41% said they had the chance to work privately
  • 31% found they had to leave the office in order to complete work

The result of this is that many employees felt demotivated and find they are losing as much as 86 minutes a day due to distractions.

Health implications

Many employees in open plan offices report feeling stressed and the lack of privacy hinders their capacity for creativity. For those individuals with no set space in the office for them, there can also be reduced memory span. This may be because facts are easier to retrieve when you are working in the same space each day.

It is also far easier for viruses and infections to spread in an open plan office. Employees in open plan offices take 70% more sick days than those working from home (Canada Life Group Insurance survey).

Improvement strategies

If you have an open plan office, it is likely to be expensive to transform it into private offices. Although there are other steps you can take to improve your employees’ wellbeing. Staggered hours might give everyone in the office a quieter period or allow employees to work some hours from home. Apps can be used to track environmental features such as noise, allowing workers to easily locate the quietest space in the office. You can also make use of office divider screens to give an open plan office private spaces, where others will be less likely to cause distractions without a good reason. This flexible system allows for the creation of a space which can be private when required, but also remain open to provide a larger area for collaboration and brainstorming sessions.


Disclaimer: The information provided through Legislation Watch is for general guidance only and is not legal advice. Legislation Watch is not a substitute for Health and Safety consultancy. You should seek independent advice about any legal matter.

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