Industry Thoughts

Does an Open-Plan Office Really Lower Productivity?

By wizu | 03 May 2022

Updated 07/09/2023

There’s plenty of information available on how to improve workplace culture and make our offices better places to work. However, with so much information available, how can you choose the best bits that can really make a difference in your office space?

Let’s take a look at two ideas that are bandied about if these are actionable ideas for your office.

1. Hybrid Office Design

The hybrid office design usually involves an open-plan office; however, there are problems with this office design.  The main issue is that employees don’t have the ability to choose spaces where they can go to get work done. The open office is traditionally a noisy, distracting space, which isn’t always the best environment for everyone to work.

The goal is to create a workspace that motivates employees to leave their homes and come to the office. The office design needs to be focused on what drives behaviour, promotes collaboration and communication, and boosts productivity.

An open office design that meets these goals may include breakout spaces, private phone booths, collaboration zones, and more. These options create spaces where employees can go when they need to do different tasks.

The goal is to design a space that’s inspiring, safe, functional, and experimental. The space also needs to be flexible and allow for in-person and virtual work. That means designing a space that’s living and breathing based on the needs of employees.

That may mean an open-plan layout needs to incorporate white noise speakers, sound-absorbing furniture, and soundproof wall panels. What’s more, the technology needs to be available to make it possible for employees to move to different spaces to get things done. They also need to be able to collaborate and conduct video conferences in a comfortable, quiet space.

A seamless experience is possible in a flexible workspace.


2. Creating a Healthy Workplace

The next myth about an open-plan layout is that sitting is fatal to your health. What message could be worse for your employees? They must sit at a desk most of the workday to get tasks done. Hearing this message only causes fear and concern, which distracts everyone from their work.

Instead, the goal is to create a healthy workplace, one that’s focused on wellbeing. Studies have shown that employees working from home are concerned with wellbeing and health at the office. Here are some examples of what employees would like to see at work:

  • Health and wellbeing should be included in company risk registers and made a priority at board level
  • Organisations should schedule 30 minutes of exercise a day to protect the body’s bones and muscles
  • Mandatory breaks and “right to disconnect” policies are necessary to protect hybrid workers from burnout and physical health issues

From these results, you have a plan to change up the workplace and make it a place employees want to come to each day.


How to Make the Open-Plan Office More Productive

Open-plan offices are still with us and will be for the foreseeable future. These spaces help companies save on costs and offer more flexibility for workers. However, some employees find the open office can significantly reduce their productivity.

Some feel the whole concept is nothing but a nightmare. When employees feel like this, they don’t want to come to the office. They find the workspace chaotic and entirely frustrating. Employees may feel like they can’t get anything done. This is a common issue.

Not only that but in many offices, there are now four generations of workers using the same space. That includes Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z. What’s more; each generation has its own ideas on how to work and what makes a suitable work environment.

How to Help Employees Stay Productive

If your office needs to continue with the open-plan design, there are a few things you can do to make the environment more conducive to getting things done.


1. Use Plants

Plants work to improve indoor air quality and add oxygen to the workplace. They also reduce stress. And when strategically placed, plants can also help people avoid distractions. Plants can be used to block vision, absorb sound, and more. They can even be used as dividers between spaces.


2. Use Background Music

Research has shown that too much noise can hinder productivity for some employees in an open-plan office. In addition, other background noise such as employees chatting, phone conversations, and more can be distracting because we can hear and understand them. When we understand the topic, it’s more challenging to tear our attention away from the conversation/phone calls. So, our focus flits to what we hear others saying.

It is possible to minimise background noise in an open office with the installation of a sound system. The system plays some neutral music or white noise, which allows everyone to concentrate on their work, rather than on individual conversations. This way, employees can stay focused on their work rather than listening to the surrounding conversations.


3. Allow Employees to Work Off-Peak Hours

Some employees have a difficult time working when the office is full. So, why not consider allowing some employees to work off-peak hours? It may be necessary to observe when your office is in off-peak mode. For instance, the place may be pretty quiet until 8am. So, some employees could be allowed to come in before that time to get more tasks completed. They could have these essential tasks done before everyone else hits the office later in the morning.

Flexible work schedules may also help reduce the number of people in the office at any specific time. Allowing some employees to work remotely could also help this problem.


4. Allow Use of Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Another solution is to allow employees to wear noise-cancelling or noise-isolating headphones. Noise-cancelling headphones work by electronically cancelling sound waves. This solution works best with low-frequency sounds, such as car engines or air conditioners. However, they may not always block voices.

On the other hand, noise-isolating headphones physically black sound with a seal against the ear. These are usually best at blocking voices and other background noises.


Summing It Up

There’s no getting around the fact that an open-plan office doesn’t work for all employees. However, it can help to look for creative solutions to make the office space better and improve productivity at the same time!


Are open-plan offices suitable for all types of work?
Open-plan offices are better suited for collaborative tasks but may not be ideal for tasks requiring intense concentration.

How can employees cope with distractions in open-plan offices?
Noise-cancelling headphones and designated quiet areas can help employees focus.

Can companies customise open-plan offices to suit their needs?
Yes, companies can adapt the layout and design to balance collaboration and concentration.

Are there industries where open-plan offices are more effective?
Industries that rely heavily on creativity and teamwork, such as advertising or design, often benefit from open-plan layouts.

Do open-plan offices save companies money in the long run?
While they can reduce real estate costs, the impact on productivity should be considered when evaluating savings.

Can flexible seating arrangements improve open-plan office productivity?
Yes, providing options like hot-desking or quiet zones can enhance productivity for employees with varying needs.

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