The open office plan has a long and complex history in America. The origins of the open office can be traced back to the 19th century when the Industrial Revolution led to the creation of large, factory-like office buildings. These early office spaces were typically designed to maximize efficiency and minimize costs, and they often featured long rows of desks arranged in a large, open room.
Over time, the open office design evolved and became more sophisticated. In the early 20th century, architects and designers began to experiment with different layouts and configurations, incorporating features such as cubicles and partitions to create a more flexible and adaptable workspace. By the mid-20th century, the open office had become the dominant office design in America, and it remains a popular choice for many organizations today.
Company leaders are quick to cite the perceived benefits of open office design. They tout things like improved productivity and collaboration or point to cost savings like smaller office footprints and reduced construction expenses. But far too often, these observations are made looking out from an executive office doorway. When employees are asked their opinions, the benefits are far less clear. Drawbacks to open office design, most often cited by those experiencing it firsthand, include increased noise and distractions, lack of privacy, and loss of personal space.
The challenges of the open office have been explored in numerous articles, op-ed columns, and scientific journals—not to mention employee exit interviews. Until relatively recently, the answer to the question about productivity was subjective. Putting teams together with few physical barriers would intuitively lead to more spontaneous interactions, greater project coordination, and more overall communication. Recent studies, however, take a more quantitative look at the situation. According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a 14 percent drop in performance occurs when a worker moves from a traditional office to an open activity-based workplace. However, moving from the nosier open space to a quiet office environment, cognitive performance increased significantly by 16.9 percent, and performance increased by 21.9 percent. The study emphasizes the importance of companies providing optional areas or rooms free of distractions for employees working on tasks that demand greater concentration.
Disagreement about the impact open office designs have on productivity aside, it can have a critical effect on how people experience a workplace. Good or bad, it appears the open office is here to stay. The question should not be about the merits of this workplace design but rather how to make it work for everyone.
The ubiquitous use of headphones in today’s open offices illustrates how some individuals approach creating their own personal space. It is a solution some managers even encourage as they see the resulting increase in concentration and a drop in stress and frustration. I agree the judicious use of headphones can be beneficial in certain situations where other mitigating measures are not possible. But, there are tangible downsides to using headphones in the workplace as well. It can appear antisocial or unprofessional to colleagues and close people off from any collaboration. Clear communication and agreement about the acceptable use of headphones by employees can help avoid many of these issues.
A better approach could be just to make offices less noisy. Consulting with a qualified acoustics expert can be a great first step in solving problems before they happen. In addition to sound masking, a careful study of office space layout and the location of individuals can help address perceived sound issues and other problems cited in open office environments. Such an examination could reveal the need for more separate office spaces that can be reserved when a quiet area free from distractions is needed to complete a specific task successfully. It might also recommend designated areas for group workers with similar noise and distraction tolerances.
Unfortunately, there is no off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all solution to creating the perfect office environment. There is no single answer to how a space should be designed. Much is based on the culture of the organization and its members. Whatever the layout, however, sound design is a crucial element.
Office design will continue to evolve, and attention to acoustics will play a growing role. The two-plus years away from the traditional office have given many employees the time to reflect upon and understand what they want. A competitive labor market gives them the leverage to push company leaders to listen to their needs.
The future office needs to be a place that offers and supports all the things we missed during lockdown: face-to-face interactions, team bonding, mentoring opportunities, spontaneous collaboration sessions, and the serendipity of new ideas sparked by unplanned conversations. Building owners and company leaders have a unique opportunity to reimagine these spaces to be as welcoming, healthy, and supportive as possible. Paying attention to acoustics will play a big part in these improvements.