Human management

Open plan offices aren’t just the “dumbest management fad ever”. Research shows they also make people sick

It’s Official: Open Plan Offices Are Now The Dumbest Management Fad Ever is the title of Inc. viral post by colleague Geoffrey James from 2018. Clearly, James isn’t a fan of open-plan workspaces.

While open-plan offices were once meant to foster cooperation and collaboration (and make it easier to monitor if employees were “busy”), a Harvard Study 2018 found that when employees moved from a traditional office to an open-plan office, their personal interactions did not increase. In fact, their face-to-face interactions decreases.

Face-to-face interaction volume decreased significantly (approximately 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction.

In short, rather than sparking increasingly dynamic face-to-face collaboration, open architecture seemed to trigger a natural human response of socially withdrawing from office colleagues and instead interacting via email and instant messaging.

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

The bottom line? Forcing people to come together physically, and in response they tend to isolate themselves further by increasing their use of electronic collaboration tools.

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

Compared to “cellular” offices (i.e. for one person):

  • Offices with 2 people had a 50% higher sickness absence rate
  • Offices with 3 to 6 people had a 36% higher rate of sickness absence
  • Open-plan offices (defined as 6 or more people) had a 62% higher rate of sickness absence

(And it was before the pandemic.)

Granted, some business owners aren’t using their open-plan office spaces as a way to increase collaboration; their open-plan office layout reductions help reduce costs by reducing the total square footage required.

But like James shown in this article, these savings are offset by the resulting loss of productivity. In addition to reducing employee well-being by 32%, a study shows that open-plan offices reduce employee productivity by 15%. Another shows that workers in open-plan offices lose just under 20% of an 8 hour day the resulting distractions.

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

So if you’re considering deleting an open workspace, stop thinking and start taking action. 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.

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