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How to Work Around Your Open Office Design

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Science is uncovering major drawbacks to the open office design that has permeated workspaces the past 20 years, along with some hacks to make it work better when you have no other choice.

A 2018 Harvard study famously concluded that open environments don’t lead to the collaboration and productivity we all thought they would. Instead, it found that:

  • When office architecture makes everyone more visible, it can dampen face-to-face interaction. Employees will instead choose other, more private, communication like email.
  • Open offices may be overstimulating and can decrease organizational productivity, supporting other recently studies that find that decisions are best made in small group environments.  

In short, forcing employees together can pull them apart, at least when it comes to face-to-face interactions.

Other Harvard researchers have since discovered that employees’ perception of the lack of privacy and the high office density in an open environment negatively affect job satisfaction and work engagement. It leads to a higher rate of sick days, too.

And then there’s the most recent study—this one from the University of Pennsylvania—that highlights how important individualized temperature, lighting, and noise-control can be to worker satisfaction (three things that aren’t fully controllable in an open office).

Open office plans are also economical and pervasive—it’s likely your organization operates in such an environment right now and doesn’t plan on changing it any time soon. So, based on this latest research, here are two ideas that could help make it more workable:

  • Employees are happier, get more accomplished at work, and get more sleep at home when they have an outside view and natural lighting. Do whatever you can to ensure each of your workers has visual access to the outdoors and encourage breaks that allow them to get out and soak in some Vitamin D.
  • It’s possible that raising the temperature can bring up morale. The typical office temperature is ideal for a medium-build man in a suit. When your office is half female a no one is wearing a suit, it might be time to consider whether your office is just too cold to be productive, especially in the summer months when everyone’s typically dressed down and wearing fewer layers.

These factors really do matter when it comes to employee performance and satisfaction. Have you found a way to take back control in your organization’s open office layout? Let us know!


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