Culture & Competency

Open Plan Offices: The Increased Noise Cancels the Collaborative Benefit

A new study published by the University of Sydney calls into question the value of open plan offices yet again.

Open plan offices attract the highest levels of worker dissatisfaction, with cramped quarters, lack of privacy and noise topping the list of gripes, a large study has found.

An open plan workplace, in which enclosed rooms are eschewed in favour of partitioned or non-partitioned desks arranged around a large room, are supposed to promote interaction between workers and boost teamwork.

However, a study of over 40,000 survey responses collected over a decade has found that the benefits for workers are quickly outweighed by the disadvantages.

The study, conducted by the University of Sydney and published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, involved analysis of 42,764 survey samples collected in 303 office buildings in the US, Finland, Australia and Canada by the Center for the Built Environment at the University of California, Berkeley since 2000.

The findings:
– around 67% of respondents work in open plan offices.
– workers in open plan offices have “considerably higher” levels of dissatisfaction rates than those in enclosed offices.
– most respondents are dissatisfied with the condition of sound privacy.
– 20% to 40% of open plan occupants had high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy.

I thought this line was interesting in the article:

More than half of the occupants in open-plan cubicles (59 per cent for high partitioned cubicle and 58 per cent for low partitioned cubicle) and 49 per cent in open-plan with no or limited partitions expressed dissatisfaction with the condition of sound privacy, the analysis found.

My interpretation of this is that when there are no partitions, there is no expectation of sound privacy anyway, so only 49% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction. When some physical barriers were installed – high wall or low wall – the dissatisfaction rates went up. My reading of that is that people continued to have some hope for good sound privacy in such designs, but since that was not happening, they were increasingly dissatisfied.

And here’s the two winning lines:

What the data tells us is that, in terms of occupant satisfaction, the disadvantages brought by noise disruption were bigger than the predicted benefits of increased interaction.

“The productivity benefits of teams working together have been used to sell the open plan office for decades. Yet, if you do these evaluations and actually talk to occupants of open plan offices, very few people think that they are productive spaces. You need places to concentrate.”

If “collaboration” is equated in the minds of executives with open plan offices, it’s no wonder the term / reality gets a bad rap. Who would want to “collaborate” under such circumstances?

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