While a recent large-scale survey adds further evidence that open offices are not living up to their promise, some creative design work can improve employee productivity while providing space for collaboration.
Theoretically, open office space allows for increased collaboration and communication among co-workers; however, studies show the reality is more distractions and decreased productivity.
If you are an architect who designs commercial office space, chances are most of your clients request an open office layout. In addition to providing a high degree of flexible space, open offices theoretically encourage collaboration and group problem-solving among co-workers, which tends to spur innovation. Proponents of open offices point out this creative energy, leading to high levels of employee engagement, which in turn fosters improvements in productivity. Unfortunately, the results of a recent Oxford Economics survey found that while the purported benefits of open office design meet with the priorities of executive management, employees who work in these spaces tend to be less productive and happy than those that have their own spaces. What is the reason for this difference? How can architects design office spaces that meet the goals of management and the needs of their workforce?
Insights Gleaned from the Oxford Economics Survey
The Oxford Economic survey report “When the Walls Come Down” summarizes the findings of 1,200 senior executive employees and non-management employees in regard to their attitudes towards open office layouts and their experience working in them. When reviewing the responses to the survey, illustrated below, one finds a disconnect between management’s priorities and the experience of those who work in the spaces.
Senior Executive Management’s Goals for Open Office Layouts
When asked their priorities in terms of the design of office space for their employees, the senior management indicated enhanced employee interaction, high levels of productivity, increased employee happiness, and minimization of cost.
Employees Priorities for Their Workspaces
While there are some parallels with the responses from senior management, the non-executive employees endorsed different priorities for what they need in their workspace. The following chart illustrates the employee’s ranking of their top three needs for their office space.
Implications of the Different Priorities of Executive and Non-Executive Employees
The discrepancy between the priorities of senior management and the frontline workforce have implications for architects. For example, research shows the ambient noise decreases employee job satisfaction and perceived performance. In the Oxford Economic survey, more than 50 percent of employees reported this to be an issue, while only 39 percent of senior executive endorsed that noise level was a factor they considered when making office design decisions. Since high levels both employee satisfaction and productivity are top priorities for senior executives, if an architect’s office design does not produce an environment conducive to achieving these goals, chances are the architect will have dissatisfied clients. What are the sources of ambient noise that employees find bothersome? What design strategies can architects propose to reduce noise, improve productivity, and enhance employee job satisfaction?
Minimizing Noise Issues in an Open Office Environment
A Finnish study comparing the noise level, employee performance, and overall well-being using the reports of 689 office workers in 11 different companies found that telephone conversations were the primary source of noise distraction in open offices. In fact, the employees who worked in open offices reported twice as much wasted time attributed to distractions by telephone conversations and in-office chatter among co-workers as that reported by those who worked in private offices. Research shows telephone conversations in an office environment are highly distracting because when people only hear one part of a conversation, their brains try to fill in the “missing” part of the dialogue.
Some of the ways to avoid noise distraction while preserving an open office layout include:
- Provide retreat spaces where employees who need to work without distraction can do so.
- Include designated collaboration areas where employees can gather for group work, such as brainstorming and problem-solving.
- Feature walls and room dividers made with sound proofing materials
What is your experience with open office design?