The problem with open plan offices and the benefits of working from home

July 19 2017
The problem with open plan offices and the benefits of working from home

The problem with open plan offices and the benefits of working from home

Open plan offices developed out of the desire to create collaborative working environments, as well as cut costs. Old-style individual offices make less efficient use of the available space, while open plan enabled people to share desks and limit the amount of floor space lost to large desks, door clearance, and the other things that a floor of small rooms needs. It brought the entire company together, with the ambition of sharing ideas and working together for the common good.

However, recent studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology and the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management of more than 40,000 employees across over 300 companies, has revealed that open plan offices don’t work.

They were shown to yield considerably lower productivity than ones that offer workers more privacy and less proxemic issues. Problems with getting things done in open plan workplaces are so pronounced, that many people in the studies confessed to going to a coffee shop to get their work done. Think of that – rather than stay in the place where work is supposed to happen, they feel they are LESS distracted in a noisy café.

Noise pollution was a big problem and impacted employees’ ability to work, as well as visual distractions and interruptions by co-workers – whether intentional or a by-product of sharing less space with more people. Making or taking phone calls was problematic for employees and those around them, and sometimes created a tense atmosphere that further blunted productivity.

Another issue was the amount of sick days employees took. A Stockholm University study found that open plan work spaces resulted in higher levels of stress, whether due to office conflict or the inability to focus on tasks. In addition, the impact of one person coming to work when sick with a cold or flu is exacerbated by the shared space. All this lead to a 62 per cent increase in sick days when compared to those who work in non-open plan offices.

Additionally, for many people, an open plan office communicated a lack of trust. The feeling of “being watched” isn’t conducive to getting work done and can lead to resentment of management and the company as a whole.

But what if your business can’t afford to give every employee their own office?

The answer, according to another recent study, seems obvious – working from home.

The Stanford University study showed that the performance of employees who worked from home improved by an average of 13 per cent. It also revealed an increase of 9 per cent in the number of minutes they worked per day, attributed to workers choosing to continue working through breaks, with the freedom and comfort of being at home making it easier to use the bathroom, have coffee or tea, and eat lunch, without having to take the full legal entitlement.

Staff turnover dropped by 50 per cent when compared to the control group, who were required to commute to the office every day, and remote workers reported substantially higher job satisfaction. The firm involved in the study reported cost savings of approximately $2000 per employee who worked from home, with costs for kitchen, bathroom and office supplies reduced, as well as the low attrition rate meaning there was less spent training new staff.

There were downsides however, with many of the work-from-home test group choosing to return to the office once the study was complete. They cited the isolation of working from home caused feelings of loneliness, which in time may impact their productivity. This shows that there is a fine balance when maintaining work-life harmony, with too much of one being detrimental to the other. Working from home and working in the office don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and the advancement of technology for conferencing, collaboration and project management addresses many of the concerns of both employees and employers. Many businesses will allow employees to alternate their working from home — working one or two days in the office and remotely for the rest. This can be organised so that remote employees are in the office at different times, making it simple to share desks and not have space that is only used a small proportion of the time. Programs such as Skype, Asana, Trello, GoToMeeting, and a myriad of others, make it simple to stay in the loop on projects and company announcements. These allow employees to schedule times to check in on work, rather than the constant stream of small interruptions that can dog a day spent in the office.

While companies such as IBM and Yahoo! have gone the other way, placing a ban on working remotely, they seem to be swimming against the tide. More businesses are choosing to not simply allow working from, but actively encourage it. The time people save commuting, the increases in productivity, satisfaction and happiness, as well as the potential reduction in costs, all point to benefits for both the individual and the business as a whole.