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

The problem with openplan offices and the benefits of working from home

Open plan offices developed out of the desire to createcollaborative working environments, as well as cut costs. Old-style individualoffices make less efficient use of the available space, while open plan enabledpeople 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. Itbrought the entire company together, with the ambition of sharing ideas andworking together for the common good.

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

They were shown to yield considerably lower productivitythan ones that offer workers more privacy and less proxemic issues. Problemswith getting things done in open plan workplaces are so pronounced, that manypeople in the studies confessed to going to a coffee shop to get their workdone. Think of that – rather than stay in the place where work is supposed tohappen, 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. Makingor taking phone calls was problematic for employees and those around them, and sometimescreated a tense atmosphere that further blunted productivity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were downsides however, with many of thework-from-home test group choosing to return to the office once the study wascomplete. They cited the isolation of working from home caused feelings ofloneliness, which in time may impact their productivity. This shows that thereis a fine balance when maintaining work-life harmony, with too much of onebeing detrimental to the other. Working from home and working in the officedon’t have to be mutually exclusive, and the advancement of technology forconferencing, collaboration and project management addresses many of theconcerns of both employees and employers. Many businesses will allow employeesto alternate their working from home — working one or two days in the officeand remotely for the rest. This can be organised so that remote employees arein the office at different times, making it simple to share desks and not havespace 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 inthe loop on projects and company announcements. These allow employees toschedule times to check in on work, rather than the constant stream of smallinterruptions that can dog a day spent in the office.

While companies such as IBM and Yahoo! have gone the otherway, placing a ban on working remotely, they seem to be swimming against thetide. More businesses are choosing to not simply allow working from, butactively encourage it. The time people save commuting, the increases inproductivity, satisfaction and happiness, as well as the potential reduction incosts, all point to benefits for both the individual and the business as awhole. 

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