THE BLOG

The Top 3 Open-Office Myths

02/13/2015 01:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

What's the best way to promote teamwork and collaboration in the workplace?

In recent years, the answer has been open-plan offices, in which employees work side-by-side with their colleagues in a configuration that not only encourages face-to-face interaction, but requires it. While these open spaces have their benefits, a new study from global office furniture company Steelcase Inc. suggests employers' efforts to foster - and, in some cases, force -- creativity can have the opposite effect, especially when those efforts come at the expense of employee privacy.

According to Steelcase's Donna Flynn, "the need for privacy sometimes -- at work as well as in public -- is as basic to human nature as is the need to be with others. The harder people work collaboratively, the more important it is to also have time alone."

Yet many employers have failed to achieve this balance, instead believing that the more open the floor plan, the more satisfied workers are with their office. In reality, just 11 percent of workers are "highly satisfied" with their work environment, according to a Steelcase survey of more than 10,500 workers who work in a variety of office types. Not surprisingly, those employees had more privacy and, as a result, were also the most engaged, with 98 percent saying they are able to concentrate easily in the office. Conversely, employees with less privacy were most dissatisfied with their work environment and also the least engaged, showing the toll a less-than-ideal floor plan can have on company morale.

The Steelcase report dispels other common myths relating to open-plan offices, including:

Myth #1 - Open floor plans save companies money by eliminating the need for private office space: Too much privacy can be a bad thing, isolating workers in cubicles and walled-off offices, but fully open floor plans aren't much better. "There's mounting evidence that the lack of privacy is causing people to feel overexposed in today's workplaces and is threatening people's engagement and their cognitive, emotional and even physical wellbeing," Flynn says.

Myth #2 - Workers quickly adapt to the open-office environment:
Despite claims to the contrary, study after study has shown that humans aren't great at multitasking. This is especially problematic in coworking spaces, which are full of distractions that can undermine productivity. Research cited in the Steelcase report estimates that office workers are interrupted as often as once every three minutes by human and electronic communications. What's more, it can take as long as 23 minutes for employees to get back on task and return to a fully engaged state.

Myth #3 - Open-plan offices generate better ideas: Collaboration is a key part of the brainstorming process, but an open floor plan doesn't guarantee innovative ideas. In some cases, "group think" can stifle original thoughts, leading people go along with the general consensus rather than offering their own honest opinions, according to the Steelcase report.

As noted in a previous blog post, there's no one-size-fits-all solution to office design. Instead, employers should offer a variety of spaces that can accommodate whatever task an employee is working on, either alone or with a group. "A key takeaway from our study is that the open plan isn't to blame any more than reverting to all private offices can be a solution," Flynn says.

Ultimately, office design is about achieving a balance between the two and finding solutions that work for different industries. The needs of a creative marketing agency or tech startup are very different from a law firm, so their respective work environments should be flexible enough to facilitate collaboration and open discussions without taking the concept too far.

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Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Solutions, a Chicago-based real estate provider specializing in office solutions for companies requiring up to 10,000 square feet of office space.