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Are open-plan offices good or bad for business?

Posted on Thursday, August 4th, 2016 | Flexible Offices

Last year, Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Facebook’s enormous new office in Menlo Park in Silicon Valley. Occupying 430,000 square feet, it’s reported to occupy 430,000 square feet and have a nine-acre park on its roof, as well as the world’s largest open-plan working space, where some 2,800 staff will be based.

Open-plan offices may be prevalent now in the USA, UK and elsewhere, but opinions are somewhat divided as to whether they are a good or bad thing.

Health, wellbeing and productivity

A 2014 survey from Canada Life Group Insurance suggested that open-plan offices can negatively affect an employee’s health, wellbeing and productivity. Just 6.1 per cent of respondents believed it was healthy to work in an open-plan environment, with just 6.5 per cent thinking it aided productivity.

The Canada Life survey also found that employees who worked in an open-plan office took off more than 70 per cent more sick days when compared to those who worked from home. Some believe that open-plan offices make workers sick more often because germs can spread more widely and quicker.

Matter of privacy

And it seems that many of us prefer to work with more privacy. As reported by The Guardian, international research carried out by Ipsos and the Workspace Futures Team of Steelcase suggests that 85 per cent of us aren’t happy with our working environment and it affects our ability to concentrate.

While working privately was important to an overwhelming majority (95 per cent), less than half (41 per cent) could do so, with a third (31 per cent) needing to leave the office to get their work done. According to the research, workers were losing an average of 86 minutes a day because of distractions in the office.

Business benefits

Productivity blogger Lionel Valdellon provides a more balanced assessment of open-plan offices, outlining some of the positives. “Open plan offices are great for extroverts, laid back, go-with-the-flow personalities, and even for particular departments like sales, certain marketing teams, and even design/creative services. [Open-plan] offices are perfect for teams that can thrive in more lively environments,” he writes.

Proponents of open-plan offices also say they encourage collaboration, better communication between individuals and teams (although some researchers dispute this), and closer camaraderie, Valdellon notes, while enabling businesses to cut costs, because less floor space per employee is required.

Cost savings

According to contributor Jessica Stillman: “The business case for open plan offices is simple. They’re cheaper. Without walls you can stuff more people into less space, saving on real estate costs. In addition, open plan advocates claim the free circulation of staff makes for more interaction and creative serendipity.”

When compared to separate smaller individual offices, open-plan offices can be cheaper to heat, cool or light. And they can offer greater flexibility, for example, if employees or teams need to be moved around or new employees accommodated. It can also be easier for managers to supervise staff, of course, which can aid productivity.

Work zones

Maybe the solution lies somewhere in between the two options. As Stillman observes, many businesses now divide up larger workspace into zones, “some offering privacy for concentrated work and some space for interaction.”

Some employers are also allowing team members to divide their working week between time spent in the noisier office environment with “a quiet corner at home or a coffee shop (where the ambient buzz has been shown to increase creativity).”