Open Plan Offices Aren’t Just the ‘Dumbest Management Fad of All Time.’ Research Shows They Also Make People Sick

“It’s Official: Open-Plan Offices Are Now the Dumbest Management Fad of All Time” is the headline of Inc. colleague Geoffrey James’s viral post from 2018. Clearly James isn’t a fan of open-plan workspaces.

While open-plan offices were once assumed to foster cooperation and collaboration (and make monitoring whether employees were “busy” a lot easier), a 2018 Harvard study found that when employees moved from a traditional office to an open-plan office, their personal interactions didn’t increase. Their face-to-face interactions actually decreased.

The volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70 percent) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.

In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.

How much more? People who switched from individual to open-plan offices spent 73 percent less time having in-person conversations. They spent 67 percent more time using email. They spent 75 percent more time using instant messaging.

The bottom line? When you force people to be closer physically, they tend to isolate themselves more by increasing their use of electronic collaboration tools.

And then there’s this: A study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health shows that employee sick days increase dramatically as the “openness” of an office space increases.

Compared to “cellular” (meaning one-person) offices:

  • two-person offices had a 50 percent higher sickness absence rate
  • three- to six-person offices had a 36 percent higher sickness absence rate
  • Open-plan offices (defined as six or more people) had a 62 percent higher sickness absence rate

(And that was before the pandemic.)

Granted, some business owners don’t use their open-plan office spaces as a way to increase collaboration; their open-plan office setup cuts helps keep costs down by decreasing the overall square footage required.

But as James shows in this article, those savings are outweighed by the resulting productivity loss. Besides reducing employee well-being by 32 percent, one study shows that open plan offices reduce employee productivity by 15 percent. Another shows that workers in open-plan offices lose just under 20 percent of an eight-hour day to the resulting distractions. 

As James points out, “If employees are going to be using email and messaging to communicate with co-workers, they might as well be working from home, which costs the company nothing.”

So if you’re considering scrapping an open-plan workspace, stop thinking and start doing. Create individual offices. Or let more people work from home. Do that, and your employees should collaborate more, not less. They should be more productive, not less.

And they will be less likely to get sick.

Which, in itself, should be reason enough.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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