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The Downside to the Open Office Trend

October 20th, 2015
interior of an open officeBeware the latest trend in office design. Open workspaces, where walls and partitions are banished, are all the rage; by one estimate some 70% of U.S. offices now have no or low partitions.

Championed by the tech industry, open offices do, in fact, encourage interaction and collaboration among colleagues, while reducing the cost of building and furnishing an office. The evidence is strong that an open-plan can help improve a team's productivity by increasing the informal communication among members, leading to better efficiency and reduced friction.

Now, here's the "but": Newer studies are finding there can be significant downsides to an open-office plan, some of them severe enough to more than offset the gains. Research published in the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology found workers in open-offices experienced more interruptions, reduced attention spans, difficulty concentrating and a higher level of stress.

Noise was one of the more pernicious problems, especially for workers needing to concentrate on detailed tasks. A less obvious consequence was an increase in sick leave. As the number of workers in a single room increased, so did the amount of sick leave they took; up to 62% more than those in private offices.

Companies are responding to these issues in innovative ways. Rather than putting up walls, they are creating mixed space environments, allowing employees to choose what they need to accomplish the work they have. Here too, tech is leading the way, creating a variety of spaces, ranging from plug-in sites with electricity, internet, and phone access, to intimate meeting rooms, and even variants of the desk carrels common in academia.

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