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Open-plan offices: Are they better for productivity?

Open-plan offices: Are they better for productivity?

A desire to have workers sit in traditional cubicles is falling away, with nine out of 10 offices in Australia going open-plan. Yet despite their overwhelming popularity, some are questioning the usefulness of these types of offices, suggesting they may actually lead to stress and a higher number of sick days.

So is there still a place for older-style offices? And if you’ve gone open-plan, how can you increase your employees' productivity and well-being at work?

The pros of open-plan offices

Open-plan offices have been with us since the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to modernist architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who favoured the design of large, spacious work areas.

The idea behind open-plan offices was a logical one: by creating an open and egalitarian work environment where employees are free to communicate, collaborate and share ideas with each other, companies hoped to foster innovation and increase their value proposition in an increasingly complex business landscape.

This design strategy has also been found to offer significant financial advantages.

By eliminating rooms and cubicle walls, open-plan offices can help businesses save on building materials and construction costs, as well as reduce heating and cooling expenses through more efficient lighting and air flow.

The communal spaces of open offices also encourage greater sharing of resources, and if your business is growing, open-plan offices can provide more flexibility when it comes time to add more employees.

The downside to open-plan offices

Despite their many apparent benefits to both employers and employees, open-plan offices have their detractors.

A 2013 report by the University of Sydney, which collected more than 40,000 responses over a 10-year period, found that open-plan offices attract the highest level of worker dissatisfaction – in direct contrast to the notion that they support greater efficiency and employee happiness. So what's driving the high levels of dissatisfaction?

According to Richard de Dear, head of architectural design science at the University of Sydney, unwanted noise is the culprit. Workers in open spaces are unable tune out conversations, compromising their ability to focus and leading to increased frustration and stress.

Indeed, research by Ipsos and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase revealed that “85 per cent of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and can’t concentrate”, resulting in an average loss of 86 minutes of work per day.

But it's not just the increased noise levels and distractions that employers should be concerned about. Studies have shown a high correlation between open-plan offices and the amount of sick leave employees take – in some cases as much as 70 per cent more for employees of open-plan offices.

Making open-plan work for you

With 95 per cent of workers from the Steelcase study saying that working privately is important to them, employers should focus on ways to increase their employees' satisfaction on the job, including:

  • Offering employees the ability to create configurable and private spaces through the use of moveable desks, tables, walls and cabinets.
  • Allowing employees to choose their preferred seating arrangements – not forcing predefined configurations, which may not work for different personality types.
  • Filling the environment with natural lighting, views of nature and an abundance of plants – shown to reduce cortisol levels related to stress.

Finally, choosing the right office configuration for your type of business – landscape, cluster workstation, modular workstation or even the traditional office (yes, with cubicles) – can make a huge impact on employee satisfaction levels.

With privacy being a basic human need, employers need to balance the pluses of open-plan design with their employees' need to concentrate and tune out the distractions around them. By looking beyond the idealism of open-plan offices and incorporating real strategies to reduce employee stress, businesses will naturally increase their productivity as well. Here are six more ways you can maintain a healthy workforce.

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