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Open Offices: Good or Bad?


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The New World of Work – a concept we explore frequently on RingCentral Connect – has massively disrupted our work habits. Many of the changes that have taken place are positive: the emergence of smartphones, for example, has empowered people to be productive regardless of location, while attitudinal shifts on productivity and autonomy have limited the extent to which corporate workers are chained to their desks.

Yet not all of the New World of Work’s disruptions are welcome. To wit, there may be a push-back afoot on the physical environment of work: the office. origin_8392971459

The New Yorker recently published an eye-opening review of research related to open-office environments and productivity. Open-plan offices, touted by organizational experts for decades as enablers of collaboration, may actually be hurting our effectiveness on the job, several studies appear to show.

One 2011 meta-study, for example, determined that stress levels were higher and concentration and motivation were lower in open offices (compared to their conventional counterparts).

And Finnish research showed that when more people share a space, the number of sick days taken by the group increases sharply.

medium_5185370545 I can speak to the veracity of latter study: Here at RingCentral HQ – an open-plan office on two floors – a particularly virulent cold has been going around. You can almost track its move through the office, the same way Google has done with the flu. (I think Patient Zero is someone in the support department downstairs, but I can’t be certain.)

In any case, the Finns’ illness research demonstrates that open offices can have a significant negative impact on employee well-being. While open workplaces do foment a sense of camaraderie and can effect unplanned interactions – a major reason Yahoo ended telecommuting last year – they aren’t without drawbacks. qc15_si_lg

If your office has an open plan, providing quiet workspace may counteract the downsides of open design. Or, failing that, you could invest in noise-cancelling headphones for your staff. Take it from me, they work – I have a pair of Bose QuietComforts that doesn’t leave my desk.

Featured images courtesy of Bose, chrisjagers via photopin\ cc and Aurimas Adomavicius via photopin cc.

Originally published Feb 07, 2014, updated Oct 03, 2021

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