Beware the pitfalls of the open office

These 4 tactics can counter the drawbacks of an open office, which a new study links to reduced productivity.
 This 2014 photo of Net-a-Porter’s London head office shows an example of an open seating plan.
This 2014 photo of Net-a-Porter’s London head office shows an example of an open seating plan.

An open office may prompt employees to interact less as they attempt to preserve privacy and personal space, a study from Harvard Business School suggested.

In studies of two Fortune 500 companies, researchers tracked employees' activities for 15 days while their offices were transformed to an open floor plan. They found that employees spoke less with colleagues, with their face-to-face interactions dropping by about 70%, and that they relied more on electronic communication such as instant messaging and email.

A confidential internal review at one company also revealed that productivity had declined after the move to an open floor plan, the researchers wrote.

This and previous studies have suggested open offices are filled with distractions, such as background conversations, that can be overstimulating and detract from productivity, and even increase the number of sick days employees use.

So, what if your organisation is one of thousands that, like trendsetters Google and Facebook, have already invested in an open design? Researchers have some suggestions on how to avoid the pitfalls of an open office:

Create physical boundaries

Employees can wear headphones to listen to music or use noise-cancelling technology to drown out ambient noise, said Jamie Gruman, Ph.D., psychologist and professor at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, and co-author of Boost: The Science of Recharging Yourself in an Age of Unrelenting Demands. Placing tall plants around their desk or cubicle can also help employees block their line of sight from distractions and make them feel more secluded, he said. Employees can also install a gadget such as a Busylight that indicates somebody is present but busy or create a small sign for their desk to indicate they're focused on a task and don't want to be disturbed. "Just because colleagues can see you doesn't mean you're available to chat," Gruman said.

Take breaks

It's important to make an effort to recapture the privacy and solitude that are breached in an open office, Gruman said. Taking short breaks during the day to catch some quiet moments, he said, perhaps using a lunch break for a long walk, can help employees focus when they return to work.

Work remotely

"If working from home is an option, exploit it," Gruman said. He and other experts suggested this as a solution to the distractions of the open office, as technology has made it easier than ever to work remotely. According to a Gallup survey of employed people in the US, 43% said they worked remotely at least part of the time in 2016. Data collected by the EU agency Eurofound suggested that in the 28 EU countries, the percentage of employed people working remotely at least part of the time in 2015 ranged from 37% in Denmark to 7% in Italy. The UK came in fourth with 26%. Many companies offer telecommuting and other flexible work options, one reason being that research has found it can help keep employees satisfied and reduce turnover.

Consider activity-based work areas

Rather than assigning employees to desks, some organisations have moved to activity-based working, which creates a range of spaces for different tasks, including small and large spaces for teams to meet, more private spaces for individual work, private spaces for phone calls, and more, said Gemma Irving, Ph.D., a lecturer in strategy at the University of Queensland Business School in Australia. Solutions such as these "better balance openness and privacy and give employees more control over where they work", she said.

As a whole, organisations may need to explore more combinations of open-plan, flexible, and private spaces to suit employees' needs, she said. They must consider the times when working in a group is productive and fosters collaboration, such as in a war-room-type environment during a deadline project, but also what tasks benefit from solitude. "It is becoming clear that simply moving employees to a new space is not enough to improve collaboration," she said. "Employees need incentives or reasons to work together. Organisations need to think carefully about what type of collaboration they want to promote and the spaces that suit."

Samiha Khanna is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Sabine Vollmer, an FM magazine senior editor, at