These workspaces encourage colleague collaboration – but there are plenty of reasons why employees struggle to be productive in these ‘default’ office layouts

The radio is on. The work is flowing effortlessly like the tunes I’m listening to, and I’m swiftly ticking items off my to-do list. But I’m sitting here with my headphones on, so I can concentrate on my work and better ignore distractions.

And I’m not alone: with the near-ubiquity of open-plan offices, many people complain these layouts are loud, lack privacy and cause constant interruptions. Headphones offer a modicum of solace for those desperately trying to find their ‘flow’.

So why are open-plan offices if employees seemingly don’t like them? And is there a better alternative?

The office environment has evolved greatly over the past century as technology and workplace ideals have shifted. As the Efficiency Movement of the early 20th Century gradually fell out of favour, offices progressed to the mid-century Bürolandschaft concept: it encouraged conversation and collaboration as desks were grouped together, with managers now in the same area as other employees rather than in their own private rooms.

That evolved further to the Action Office idea, which afforded a bit more privacy with larger, more enclosed workstations, but still offering the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues. And while many of us will be familiar with this layout, some firms advanced it and created the ‘cube farms’ favoured in the 80s and 90s – there was even more privacy, yes, but collaboration and interaction were affected as staff were more likely to speak virtually than in person.

All these concepts have one key element in common: workers sitting together in large rooms.

For many, that’s one of the open-plan office’s biggest advantages. A 2016 study from the University of Queensland found open-plan offices did work for certain groups of people – for example, if you all have a shared goal and you need to interact with other team members frequently.

The employees in the study valued getting instant feedback from colleagues, and saw any interruptions as opportunities to help others. Being in the same space also means everyone has access to the same resources, such as charts and drawings, and will aide team productivity.

Your ability to work well in an open-plan office may also depend on your job role and business sector you’re in. The same study said engineering teams working on process improvements found it helped to be together in one space – ditto business performance teams looking at initiatives.

“From an HR perspective, there are a number of positives to open-plan offices,” says Clare Lassiter, senior HR consultant at business consultancy Pure Human Resources. “They facilitate conversation and collaboration, they lend more inclusivity and transparency to the workplace, and individuals naturally absorb information and knowledge when sat alongside each other.”

Being together can help foster relationships – personally and professionally – that might not have emerged otherwise, says Shazia Mustafa, co-founder of family-friendly co-working space Third Door. “Being able to share amenities, such as the printer, kitchen appliances and not having to pay for other overheads, is also beneficial – especially if you are a start-up,” she adds.

So while there are positives points about how open-plan offices can work for teams, there’s evidence that it may not work for individuals.

With so many people working in close proximity to each other, and all in essentially the same (very large) room, noise can be a problem. Earphones, headphones and earbuds are the universal signs to ‘do not disturb’ in offices. They’re seen as essential items by some office workers: this article from The Atlantic relates the tales of people who have returned home or even bought new headphones if they’ve forgotten them, such is their inability to face a day at their desk without some form of noise control.

Workers can also get distracted by colleagues physically moving around. As Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist, put it to The Wall Street Journal: “If we see a bunch of people gathering in our peripheral vision, we wonder, ‘What are they talking about? Did somebody get laid off? Are they coming to lay me off?’” It’s these unpredictable movements in our peripheral vision that distract us, says Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University. Individuals’ ability to filter out visual stimuli varies, making it tricky for some to concentrate in a bustling workspace.

And the more often we are interrupted, the less productive we are. One 2018 survey says 70% of workers feel distracted (jumping to 74% for millennials and gen Z-ers – that’s anyone born between the early 1980s and the early 2010s), and it can take more than 25 minutes for some to then return to work. Even short interruptions of just 2.8 seconds can double the number of errors we make.

“In my opinion, open-plan offices kill productivity and efficiency,” says Liza Andersin, HR director at findcourses.co.uk. “Employees have a huge amount of visual and oral distraction in such a busy, noisy, open-plan space – which can elevate a person’s stress levels due to the lack of peace and privacy.”

So how can we make these office spaces work for us? First, it might be worth seeing if your set-up is actually working or not. Heather Myers, chief psychology officer for personality science company Traitify, says leaders should ‘rethink their hyperfocus on teamwork’ – people may not say anything in case it seems like it goes against company culture, or may make it look like you aren’t a team player.

Private areas might be something to think about. A 2013 study by the University of Sydney – which looked at more than 40,000 workers in 300 US office buildings – concluded: “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues [when people are uncomfortable in close proximity to others].”

And a 2012 study by the Harvard Business School found Chinese factory workers were 10-15% more productive when shielded from their supervisors’ view. This was because they felt more free to experiment with problem-solving and efficiency improvements.

Except there’s a problem: most organisations can’t just move to a building that’s got a better setup, or extensively reconfigure what we already have. And money is one of the reasons why open-plan offices are used – have a look at this analysis of real estate savings of larger US companies, as square footage per employee has decreased.

But there are some workarounds. Rachel Morrison of the Auckland University of Technology offers numerous suggestions, such as areas of free desks, bookable offices, and collaborative workspaces for group work, and breakout areas for more informal team discussions.

You can also try positioning plants, panels and bookshelves strategically to help mitigate the distraction caused by the workplace’s usual hustle and bustle. And yes, even use your headphones to counter distracting noises.

However, as Morrison says, some spontaneous interactions with our colleagues is essential – we just need to strike the correct balance in open-plan offices to make sure the collaborative benefits don’t outweigh the distracting drawbacks.