by Phil Mackie, Guest Blogger


Cubicle walls have officially gone out of style. The open office is now the hallmark of the edgy startup “bullpen” style office. These hip interiors are often featured in movies and tv, and are symbolic of a fast-acting, responsive, united and oh-so-youthful work environment in which stalwarts pitch their ideas to their eager coworkers without the barrier of cubicle walls. They might look good on screen, but do open offices really live up to all the hype? Let’s investigate.


Good: If you plug your ears and hum, you won’t have to worry about the rest

There’s no denying that there are some benefits to the open office concept. First and foremost, it tends to be cheaper, since companies no longer have to spend money on cubicles.

Open offices also tend to create a Spartan-style view of productivity. Since a worker can hear the hustle and bustle of the entire office, he is treated to the sight of a cacophony of productivity, which can be infectious. Managers also get the added bonus of being able to survey their entire team without having to peer over cubicle walls.

It seems that the open office layout sits well with younger employees, who are less likely to disagree with it, due to the perception that the open spaces stimulate camaraderie.


Bad: Not so good, but we can work with it

While the open office concept certainly looks better than stuffy gray cubicle walls, it might not actually foster productivity. Loud environments are rarely the best ones in which to work, especially if the work requires concentration.

Of all the noises a hapless employee is exposed to, speech is the most distracting. According to sound expert Julian Treasure, productivity in the open office suffers by 66% because the human brain can only process 1.6 human conversations at a time. Overhearing just one conversation in the open office setting leaves you with only 0.6 of your own inner dialogue to guide your work.

There is little doubt that distractions slow down productivity, and studies showing that open office participants make twice the number of errors after a three second interruption only confirm this, although to be fair distractions happen everywhere, even in closed office environments.

We all know what it’s like to get derailed when we’re concentrating on a task. Productivity experts claim that those undertaking complex tasks can take up to 15 more minutes to recover the level of focus they had before they were interrupted.

Constant distractions also run the risk of sparking off chain reactions of unproductivity in which workers end up caught between checking their email and casually browsing the web, warn some studies.

While the biggest concern for the open office is the noise level, there are ways to combat the issue, although these are more often than not expensive solutions.

Employees can also help themselves by using headphones to listen to music, although doing so might undermine the collaborative spirit the office setup aims to promote and also reduce concentration.


Ugly: These are the most chilling aspects of the open office that researchers have found

It’s no secret that stress has an overwhelmingly negative impact on health and wellness. Well, according to some studies, the open office environment might actually be heightening employees’ stress levels, since it leads to longer and more frequent sick leave.

While the business world tends to assume that open-plan layouts promote communication amongst colleagues and boost satisfaction at work, it turns out that might actually be a myth, as studies have shown that the layout actually detracts from job satisfaction.


Eschewing unfriendly cubicle walls for a non-traditional, novel approach to work shouldn’t have to happen to the detriment of workers’ productivity and job satisfaction. Some degree of privacy is essential, so don’t trade the productivity that comes with it for an office layout that merely looks snazzy.

While open, collaborative discussion is important in brainstorming sessions and for team building, it shouldn’t come at the cost of workers’ ability to flesh out details and concentrate in their own space when they have to. Give workers the best of both worlds and that’s when your business will really take off.


About the Author:
Phil Mackie is a caffeinated blogger who loves talking Tech, Productivity and Leadership. He can be reached @phill_mackie  if you can’t find him at the café.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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