Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

You probably suspected this already, but employee surveys continue to show that open-plan workplaces are a source of job dissatisfaction.

One of the most recent research studies surveyed ~4,000 adults who work in offices and found that employees dislike open office concepts for a host of reasons, including:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Interruption and/or distraction from fellow employees
  • Noise levels
  • Inescapable odors
  • Temperature control issues

In fact, feelings run so strongly against open offices that employees would prefer to give up the following perks as a tradeoff:

  • Vacation days
  • Year-end bonus
  • Office coffee machine
  • Access to a window or natural light

And for the cherry on top, a significant percentage of respondents claimed that an open office environment would be a deal-breaker when considering a new job — either inside their current company or going someplace else.

At a time when companies are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, that factor is perhaps the most impactful one of all.

Against this backdrop of “passive-aggressive” attitudes about open-plan workspaces, many companies keep on merrily designing open-office environments or renovating existing spaces to conform to new open-plan design schemes.

Purportedly the reason for open office environments is to save money — but is that really the case? It’s true that some building and partition costs can be reduced, but how about the impact on worker productivity?

Actually, there’s another, perhaps unspoken reason why companies love open offices: they can monitor (read: spy on) their employees more easily.  That’s something most people find quite distasteful — at least here in America where “individualism” continues to thrive as a bedrock cultural principle.  And the plain truth is that people like having some control over their workspace.  After all, it’s a place where they spend eight hours of every workday.

But even with these basic truisms at work, there are new developments that could be changing the whole notion of the office environment. It’s more than just conceivable that we’ll be seeing more spaces adapt to accommodate workers who move from environment to environment based on the needs of the moment.

As more of the “guts” of the office are housed electronically — and portably — the whole notion of a “home desk” may be becoming less and less relevant. Jay Osgerby, a partner in workspace design firm Barber & Osgerby puts it this way:

“The desk is dead. I don’t even know if the office building as we know it today will be in existence.”

I’m not at all sure that Osgerby’s prediction will come true any time soon. Who knows, his view might turn out to be as off-base as the open-office concept.  But it is interesting to observe how the office environment is changing as the nature of business evolves.

What about your own office environment? What’s good and not-so-good about the concept?  What sort of personal horror stories do you have — or conversely, do you have good tales to tell?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

5 thoughts on “Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

  1. I know an experienced New York City consulting firm employee. She notices few of her colleagues come into the “office” now, and when she feels she must, it is with dread of all the open-plan features you mention and of excessive contact with annoying people. She especially hates the dirty and poorly maintained “cubicle” she inherited from a sloppy colleague. It’s like getting a bad taxi.

    And every office has a social dynamic: Some people like to be seen, while some do not like to be watched and speculated about.

    But there’s a more important reason this is happening. It’s not about saving money on partitions. In large companies, offices were once severely hierarchical, military-style. If an assistant to the vice president so much as installed a potted plant in his or her office only permitted to his boss, the vice president, he would be fired. Nobody cared about your creativity. They wanted your obedience.

    Now, in the information age, we don’t give a hoot if a low-level employee puts an Aubusson tapestry on the floor, wears flip-flops and spills coffee on it. It’s our brains the companies want, not our compliance. But it doesn’t change the fact that maybe our “brain” might want a set of typical human boundaries. This is essentially a border war.

  2. In this day and age of working from home, it’s a wonder that more firms haven’t given up completely on offices for staff. Many of the offices I visit are nearly empty, all the time, which is an enormous waste of resources.

    One of the ideas behind open-plan workplaces is to reduce the waste by crowding the people who do show up at the office into a space which is just big enough to hold them all. Presumably, if different groups of people show up on different days, the potential savings are huge compared to allocating a separate work space or cubicle to each person.

  3. This is a subject close to my heart! I accepted my current job with the understanding that I’d have an–albeit small–private office. When I showed up on Day 1, they had decided it would be awesome if I shared a set of three cubicles with my team for “collaboration.”

    I work in marketing, which means that I do a lot of writing, editing, reading, and researching. This is impossible in an open environment with the noise and traffic that came through there. Even with headphones. I couldn’t use my speakerphone for conference calls. I wore an annoying phone headset. I couldn’t take a personal call when I was buying a house or call my doctor’s office. I had to take those calls out in the parking lot! This-bait-and switch really frustrated me. I resented the feeling of demotion and felt it hurt my status as the manager.

    After two years, we expanded and I finally got an office. I am infinitely more productive and happy.

    A new executive has come on board and feels the office is too spread out and we need that “Apple store” feeling of openness and interaction. We should have counter-height tables in the common areas where workers can choose to come out and work side by side at a wi-fi hot spot. I have a sneaky feeling those tables will never be utilized. Even our cubicle staff at least has a visual barrier for privacy, and they don’t want to give that up.

    If the younger generation likes this, then by all means design some open spaces for them. But for real productive output and job satisfaction … please give me walls and a door!

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