Do Open Floor Plans Encourage Productivity? The Answer May Surprise You.

Natasia Langfelder |


The open office floor plan is hotly debated and highly adopted. But does research prove it's more efficient?


Even though open plan offices have been around for at least the last five decades, they're still a hot debate today. According to recent surveys, about 70% of office employees work in an open plan office. Companies like Google and Pixar have attributed their successes - in part - to an open office space and collaborative environment, and GlaxoSmithKline invested an unknown sum into a brand new office space in Philadelphia, said to be a completely open plan.

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But not everyone thinks open plan offices are the key to success. CEO of Stack Overflow, Joel Spolsky, gave an interview at the Geekwire technology conference slamming the pervasiveness of open floor plans in the tech industry. He specifically called out Facebook, whose developers have been vocal about their unhappiness with the open floor plan after opening a brand new office with thousands of workers in an open space about a mile long. Opponents of open plan offices say that environments designed to maximize collaborative work aren't ideal when it comes time for individual work to begin. Employees who prefer quiet, privacy and less distractions at work are advocating for a return to cubicles—preferably with noise canceling paneling. 

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The Research Says...

There have been numerous studies done on the open plan office. Cornell Professor, Alan Hedge, says that he started researching it in 1976. In an interview, Hedge says, "The latest trend is to say, 'let's get rid of cubicles, let's get rid of private offices, let's create these vast open spaces and life will be wonderful.' Well it won't" [Source]

Open plan offices decrease productivity.

A 2011 study by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis found that there are positives to the open floor plan. It fostered "a symbolic sense of organizational mission." It also made employees feel like they worked for an innovative organization, as opposed to a more stodgy, hierarchical institution. Despite the company loyalty and positive outlook it engendered, Davis also found that employees suffered from damaged attention spans and decreased productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. [Source]

There's also the problem of noise. Common sense tells us that more noise and more distractions in our work environment lead to loss of productivity. The common solution to that is to wear headphones if you want peace and quiet. Nikil Saval, author of "Cubed, a Secret History of the Workplace," calls headphones the "open scandal of the open-plan office trend."

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Recent research by Harvard Business School in collaboration with Cornerstone OnDemand says that the answer lies in how you approach your open office. Research has shown that employees who sit next to productive coworkers become more productive; while toxic employees will bring down everyone around them. The allure of being able to increase productivity with an effective floor plan and seating chart in order to become the next Google or Pixar is irresistible. 

Open plan offices are bad for your health.

Loss of productivity isn't the only side effect of too much noise in the workplace. A study by the Cornell University, led by psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, revealed that people in noisy environments were less prone to make ergonomic adjustments than they were in private, casuing increased physical strain. Basically, an open plan office is bad for your back! It can also be bad for your overall health.

A study by Jan Pejtersen concluded that the more people you add to your open plan office, the more time people are going to spend taking sick leave. Pejtersen found that those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of sixty-two percent more. 

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Conclusions: "The open office plan that everybody loves to hate is here to stay."

Bloomberg has declared that, "The open office plan that everybody loves to hate is here to stay." But in this fast-paced, global economy, employers have shown that they are willing to abandon any practice that doesn't show results.

Like most things in life, the answer to the 'open floor plan debate' is moderation. Employees need collaborative spaces but they also need privacy and quiet when needed. The most senior level employees and HR folks still need offices when it comes to working with sensitive or confidential information. Employers should also consider their employee demographics: young healthy employees are more likely to thrive in an open environment. Personalities come into play as well: salespeople are more likely to enjoy an open environment than programmers or technical writers.

This doesn't mean that companies should rush to construct walls between its employees. A hybrid model, one that offers privacy, meeting room space and variation of design while also encouraging socialization and brainstorming.

Are you a fan of open plan offices? Yay or nay? Sound off in the comments or tweet us @Connex.