Open Workspaces: Optimal or Overrated?

open officeIf your company is among those considering a drastic redesign of your “conventional” work environment, you may not want to tear down those cubicle walls just yet.

Well-known companies such as Campbell’s Soup, Google and Microsoft, and even government agencies such as the General Services Administration, have made news by eliminating cubicles and other barriers between employees to create more innovative, open and collaborative work areas, and save space while they’re at it.

Some recent research, however, suggests such open-office spaces—if not done right—can be a drain on employees’ productivity as well as their health and job satisfaction.


• The 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, conducted by Washington-based architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler, polled 2,035 U.S. workers, finding that only one in four employees were in an optimal workplace setting. While the firm points out its research “shows that effective work can happen in both open and enclosed environments,” it also found that office layouts without walls could be rendered ineffective if open design schemes didn’t also allow for enough privacy to let employees focus on their individual tasks.

• A recent study appearing in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found employees in an open office set-up reported getting sick 62 percent more than their cubicle-dwelling colleagues.

• A University of Calgary study analyzed a group of 21 employees completing surveys at three stages: prior to moving from a personal office to an open-plan layout, four weeks after making the move, and six months after the move. Researchers assessed employees’ satisfaction with their physical environment, physical stress, worker relations, perceived job performance and the use of open office protocols at each interval. Employees reported more stress and less satisfaction on the job after making the move, and their dissatisfaction did not abate after the six-month adjustment period, according to researchers.

While the bugs are clearly still being worked out, it seems the Googles and Microsofts of the world are far from alone in opting for more open office layouts. In fact, the International Management Facility Association estimates 70 percent of American employees work in open-plan environments. So, if open workspaces are indeed the wave of the future, how can employers avoid the aforementioned problems?

The answer, according to Diane Hoskins, co-CEO at Gensler, may be in creating a sort of hybrid environment, and giving employees the freedom to determine how and where they get things done.

“Balanced workplaces where employees have the autonomy to choose their workspace based on the task or project at hand are more effective and higher performing,” said Hoskins, in a statement announcing Gensler’s 2013 survey findings.

“This is not about mobility,” she continued. “In fact, those who choose to remain in the office are more engaged and satisfied than those who have to be mobile most of the day. Our research indicates that employees will leverage autonomy for optimal productivity when given the choice in where and how to work as well as the technology and infrastructure to support their choice.”