Open Spaces, Smiling Faces?

Where are you sitting at this very moment?  Coffee shop? DePaul Campus Library?  In each of these spaces, you may easily find yourself within earshot of another person or several people while you frantically piece together your management blog comment.

Proxemics is the study of space,how people react within this provided amount of space and between one another.  Workplace environments and the conditions in which people are brought together have been discussed over decades of time.  One condition in particular is workstation layouts.  There are slews of opinions and research to support best practices, each claiming to benefit the worker bee and its queen more effectively.

Regardless of which side of the line you stand on with this issue, one thing is for sure; there are effects on employees, the management and in turn, operations of the business.  How these effects are interpreted is the main issue of concern here.

I remember working in an office a couple of years ago, where the cubicles dividing each of us were placed in the center of the room.  Surrounding these workstations were closed-door offices which were occupied with management, directors, accountants, and others whose positions were considered with a greater degree of importance.  Those of us that were in these cubicles always “joked” about how the rest of the company should spend some time in our shoes, until the day that discussions on office renovations began.  Talks of gutting the space into an open-space plan was considered advantageous.  This included sacrificing both our thin-walled cubicles, along with those highly coveted offices.  This is the only time that I can remember where each and every person united to aggressively voice their disapproval of this development.  We won.  Afterwards, a cubicle seemed to be more valuable than a parking space.

In a recent article posted on, IPSOS conducted  “a survey of 10,000 workers across 14 countries by market researchers IPSOS has found that that 85 per cent are dissatisfied with their working environment and cannot concentrate.”  Noisy colleagues, clacking of dozens of keyboards and the buzzing of voices – all busy with the hustle and bustle of their responsibilities.

Further more, the same study reported that “almost seven out of 10 worked in open spaces or in a combination of individual and open space offices and on average, 86 minutes per person per day are lost to distractions.”  This means that more than 20% of the working day is wasted.

AmountOfSpace_Diagram.jpgEmployee_of_the_month_open plan

Taking a look at these statistics, along with the growing number of similar reports, one can only wonder if the day of the open-plan workplace should come to an end – returning in its place, a sense of privacy where people can focus, create and progress with their company.

Tell me your thoughts:

Is having an open-space styled work environment truly cost-beneficial for companies?

Are these affected employees staying as productive as possible or are the distractions becoming too much?

How much privacy is enough?



10 thoughts on “Open Spaces, Smiling Faces?

  1. Very interesting and well-written post Samuel. The article and your post poses a very good question on whether or not the ever-so-common open-space style work environment is truly cost-beneficial for companies. However, I think the statistics really speak for itself on this matter. I think its obvious that productivity and efficiency are being negatively affected if you have 85 percent of workers dissatisfied with their work environment. I know for me, I have to be in a comfortable and closed work environment in order for me to operate at an efficient level. I think it would be an interesting study if a company with open-style work space gave employees more private work stations and measured the change in overall productivity. Thanks for posting!

  2. Could not agree with you more! There is no way I will get anything productive done if there’s background noise. I personally find open-pan design very distracting. Also there is no sound privacy which can be frustrating. There’s been numerous studies done proving that these designs are associated with decrease in motivation, increase in stress and blood pressure, etc. A big no no in my eyes.

  3. My attention was immediately captured by your article since I had just moved into my bedroom to complete these comments after being distracted by my roommates in our common area. The statistics that you mentioned are very interesting. It appears that people work better when they are working solo, secluded from the rest of the company. So, my question is why are those people even going into work to just sit in a cubicle and not talk to anyone. All of those people could most likely do all of their work at home. Right? I think that healthy distractions can make the workspace even more productive. I think google has proved this by allowing employees to work on personal projects, design their own office, go for a bike ride, or even take a nap all while on the clock.

  4. This is a interesting topic, and I haven’t thought of the problems an open-plan work space might create. I think it really depends on the individual and what environment they are used to working in. Personally I am most productive in the library or a public place, regardless of background noise or other people working. I think the main reason cubicles are used is because of the ability to fit more of them in a smaller space. It costs less for the business to have a smaller office, and makes it easier for management to ensure they have productive employees.

    Honestly I think all humans have a tendency to be lazy when unmotivated. I don’t think putting every employee in a private office will cause that 86 minutes of distraction each day to reduce very drastically. If someone is unproductive in a cubical, they will be unproductive in a office. Unless a company is full of trusted employees, giving everyone privacy will only make it easier for them to slack off without being noticed.

  5. I have worked in two different offices so far. One was an open office space with almost 80 people. The other was a cubicle split with partitions about 5 feet high so that when you’re sitting it is hard to see anything other than your computer ahead of you. I personally want my privacy, an open office space is just too distracting for me. Even with my cubicle I often end up distracted by coworkers and get involved in conversations. With open spaces, this increases even more. I think having a physical barrier is great because it helps with tuning out the background and can allow you to work at your own pace. Now if I am working on a project I might book a conference room where collaboration can occur more effectively.

  6. I believe that creating an environment at work that facilitates an individual work space for workers can really have a good effect on the productivity of an employee. Think about it, with the hustle and bustle of an open spaced plan there seems to be too many distractions for an employee to focus on their particular task. When it comes to creativity and critical thinking I would say that when you give the worker their own space their thoughts can amplify, bounce off the walls even, build and develop. Cubicle open space floor plans can be good if the task is mundane, lacking much critical thought and creativity, but I am right there with the statistics suggesting that an employee’s own space would be beneficial to everyone.

  7. Interesting topic, and I’m surprised it hasn’t received more comments as it’s a different part of operations management that I would not have thought of. From my experience at my current internship, the corporate office is organized exactly how you just described- cubicles in the middle with offices on the perimeter. The design studio and IT/IS department is set up in a very open environment, however. The set ups make sense to me because in those two separate office locations, collaboration is a much bigger part of their job than the jobs at the corporate office where there are many separate tasks and more conference rooms available in case there is a need for a team or two different teams to collaborate. Also, the teams sit in neighboring cubicles to make collaboration easy in the event of a simple question or small project that they are working on.

    I believe there are numerous reports offering contradictory options on the best design because of the subjective nature of the data- it is hard to quantify on how much time is lost distraction. Companies should try a few different options to see which works best for them.

  8. Great topic and good points mentioned. I have not thought of the influence of my surroundings in a while but currently find myself in my living room with my roommate also studying on the other side of this open area. Maybe it is the environment that is created with the people at work or at home, but I agree that the set up of a space is very important and so are it’s people. For instance, given I have a roommate, our common areas could be noise and distracting all the time, but mornings are designated to studying rather than watching tv and catching up, so it works out well for us in this environment.

  9. I think how well an open space would work would depend on the structure and environment of your company. In most cases I think that an open space would be distracting and ultimately annoying, there would be little privacy and too many things to focus on that’s not work. But for a company that relies on creativity and frequent communication between coworkers I think it’s a great idea that could boost productivity and output.

  10. Open work environments are not for everyone. I am definitely the type of person who enjoys my own space, and would be too easily distracted in that type of environment. For some companies, perhaps like Marketing and Fashion that open environment is needed and successful. However, I have visited companies like Groupon and Red Frog and while their office space looks incredible and fun, I know my productivity level would greatly decrease.

    Companies really need to poll their employees before making a work environment switch. Human capital is a company’s greatest assets, and when employee’s productivity level drops, the company will suffer. However, it can go the other way and the openness could greatly improve productivity.

    Great article!

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