Dysfunctional offices can raise employee stress levels, trigger more sick leaves, and promote anxiety and depression. Staff may also struggle to collaborate or have productive interactions. While we often blame technology for these symptoms -- think constant notifications and 24/7 connectivity -- there may be a more insidious cause: open office plans.
Silicon Valley firms were among the first to champion open workspaces, where employees sit shoulder to shoulder at communal desks. They tore down walls and eliminated private offices as outdated symbols of corporate hierarchy. An open layout seemed to convey a modern, break-all-the-rules attitude. It also provided a stark contrast to the soulless cubicle farms skewered by Dilbert comics and films like Office Space.
By 2014, about 70 percent of all offices reportedly had open floor plans. Like unlimited snacks and cold brew coffee on tap, these layouts have now become the norm, particularly in technology and startup circles. Facebook’s new MPK 21 building, for example, may represent the pinnacle of today’s open office design trend.
While open offices were intended to encourage innovation, creativity and collaboration, a growing body of research indicates that, in practice, they may have the opposite effect.
The challenges of open office design
Many office workers have experienced the pitfalls of a barrier-free space. Distractions abound, from loud-talkers to gum-smackers to the colleague who eats a tuna sandwich al desko every day.
A humming co-worker may be irritating, but some people argue that open office distractions like these are a small price to pay for greater collaboration and communication. That was the goal, for example, of Facebook’s previous Frank Gehry-designed building, MPK 20.
“It really creates an environment where people can collaborate; they can innovate together,” said Lori Goler, Facebook’s chief people officer. “There’s a lot of spontaneity in the way people bump into each other, just a really fun collaborative creative space.”
In 2018, Harvard Business School researchers analyzed how the transition to an open workspace affected staff collaboration. It was the first study of its kind to objectively measure the impacts of open plan offices by using electronic badges and microphones to record employee interactions and track email usage.
The study found that an open office reduced face-to-face interactions by about 70 percent. In contrast, email messages increased by 50 percent. The open architecture seemed to trigger a withdrawal response, where co-workers craved less social contact and chose instead to send emails and instant messages.
As the study’s co-author, Associate Professor Ethan Bernstein, explains: “If you’re sitting in a sea of people, for instance, you might not only work hard to avoid distraction (by, for example, putting on big headphones) but -- because you have an audience at all times -- also feel pressure to look really busy.”
The study also found the workers were less productive in open offices and, critically, the quality of their work decreased as well.
Other studies have shown a wide range problems related to those laid-back, free-form spaces. When organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed over 100 studies of office environments he found they had a negative effect on attention spans, creative thinking, productivity and job satisfaction. Employees who worked in open offices also had higher stress levels and lower concentration and motivation than those in standard office layouts.
According to researchers at Queensland University of Technology, 90 percent of employees working in an open floor plan office had high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and more job turnover. A Danish study of 2,400 employees also found that people working in fully open offices took 62 percent more sick days than those stationed in single-person offices.
A functional alternative
While it’s unlikely we’ll return to Mad Men-style corner offices (or their well-stocked bar carts) I believe we can find an effective middle ground. At my company, JotForm, our employees work in small, cross-functional teams of five or six people. Each team includes a lead designer, who works closely with UI and CSS developers, full stack developers, plus UX specialists, data scientists and any other necessary functions.
Every group has its own room with a door. The offices also have big whiteboards, large desks, space for people to stretch out and various productivity tools. In our experience, these private spaces help our teams stay focused. They can ditch the noise-cancelling headphones and work productively, then meet and collaborate as required.
Noise distractions might seem trivial, but a University of Sydney study found that noise is the top complaint from employees who work in open offices. “We found people in open plan offices were less satisfied with their workplace environment than those in private offices,” said Jungsoo Kim, the study’s co-author. “The benefits of being close to co-workers in open plan offices were offset by factors such as increased noise and less privacy.”
Noise distractions lead to lower productivity and higher absentee rates. That’s why a workspace that minimizes distraction of all kinds isn’t just an HR decision; it’s a smart financial move. For example, the Information Overload Research Group estimates that digital distraction alone costs U.S. companies almost $1 trillion dollars annually.
Instead of fighting distraction, a cross-functional team can collaborate openly and capitalize on each other’s energy. The proximity actually boosts productivity, because all group members are working on a single project and share the same day-to-day goals.
What’s the right team size?
My company isn’t the only advocate for a small team model. In 2014, researchers Albert Kao and Ian Couzin published a study that found small groups often make more accurate decisions. Small teams represent the best of both worlds, because they can draw on collective wisdom without having to navigate the excess noise of the crowd.
Determining the right team size may be a matter of trial and error. It’s important to discover what works best for your organization, and your employees. Decision-making process and project types also need to be taken into consideration.
In “Decide and Deliver: Five Steps to Breakthrough Performance in Your Organization” by Marcia W. Blenko, Paul Rogers, and Michael C. Makins, the authors argue that seven is the magic number of team members for making effective decisions. Once you reach that point, each additional member reduces the group’s effectiveness by 10 percent.
Ultimately, every organization needs to find its sweet spot. For us, seven people would start to feel unwieldy. But, it’s a decision every company should make based on its own unique circumstances.
Plan it your way
Unfortunately, there’s no template for the perfect office design. We could all theoretically copy Facebook’s stunning redwood forest, rooftop garden, and cutting-edge architecture and still discover that our employees need doors that close and a quiet place to code. Or perhaps our teams do thrive in collective pods -- no walls required.
While managers often prefer an open layout -- especially for its economic advantages -- it’s important to understand the potential downsides of an open plan. Even if private offices aren’t feasible for all companies, we can often provide our employees with part-time private spaces, like breakaway pods or quiet rooms.
Like most things in business, it’s essential to do what works best for your company and your teams. Open spaces may look cool for office tours and website photos, but results matter more than surface reflections.
Give your employees what they need to be healthy, productive and focused. It’s worth every bit of the investment you’ll make.
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This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com. Minor edits have been done by the Entrepreneur.com.ph editors.