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Why Employees Hate Open Offices

14 June 2017
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They sound like a good idea, but everyone who works in an open office hates open offices.

That might seem strong to you, but hear me out: they’re horrible. I know why employers love them, and it boils down to two things: Open offices save companies money, and they let employers keep tabs on their employees at all times. In a normal work space with cubicles, employees take up about 300-500 square feet per employee. In an open office plan, that number is reduced to 100 square feet. More employees in less space = money saved, right? Also, always having an eye on employees means they’ll always be productive, right?

Nope! Open offices suck more productivity and money from a company than they ever introduced, and here’s why.

People Get Sick Way More Often in Open Offices

It’s an unfortunate fact that American companies don’t give their employees as much sick time as they really should. This means that a lot of people will come to work even when they’re nearly dead from the flu. Without those pesky cubicle walls and offices, viruses get spread easily. This means that when one person on your team comes in sick, everyone else will soon be sick as well.

Employees Get Interrupted Constantly

Did you know that if you’re interrupted in the middle of a task, it takes about 23 minutes to get back on track? Seriously, they’ve done studies on it. Well… employees who work in an open office get interrupted way more often. Without some kind of visual barrier, people who are out in the open look like they’re always available to answer any questions their coworkers might have. That means that if your star performer, the one that everyone goes to for advice, is interrupted with questions six times in a day, they lose a total of 138 minutes of time trying to get focused again. Over two hours of work from your best employee, gone, because they couldn’t put up visual signs that they weren’t available.

Open Offices Actually Reduce Collaboration

Employers build open offices with good intentions. They picture rows of chatting, invigorated employees sharing ideas and being more effective than ever. This is not how it plays out in real life. Open offices end up being rows of depressed people with earphones in trying to drown out their neighbor’s irritating gossip and phone ringing. Hardly the picture of teamwork that companies had in mind.

Lack of Autonomy Kills Employee Morale

There is nothing more spirit-crushing than having no control over your day-to-day environment. If an employee feels like they aren't trusted to work when the boss doesn’t have them in eyesight constantly, why would they ever give more than bare minimum for the company? The cold truth is that employees who have great ideas and killer innovations only share them with companies that value and respect them. Companies that value and respect employees know that they need control over their environment and genuine trust/autonomy to be happy.

So…what should companies do instead? I agree that the way forward is not going back to stuffy offices or depressing cubicle farms. Rather, I believe that the best solution is to have a flexible work environment that lets employees choose the type of space they need to complete a task. An office could have a few sound proof rooms for deep concentration work, conference rooms for specific projects, and communal lounge areas for creative collaboration. Give employees control over their environment and watch their productivity skyrocket. You'll be happy you did.

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Elizabeth Woodard

Liz Woodard is an office veteran who's fascinated by office dynamics and believes that applied behavioral psychology can go far towards managing a company well. Find her at http://www.lizwoodard.com/.

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