The Challenges of Open Offices: More Productive or a Stress Nest?



The office of the future is one of designers’, office furniture manufacturers’, and business consultants’ biggest fear as workplace demographics change, and for good reason. On one hand, the open-minded, multi-cultural, self-expressive Millennials are looking to trade the individual workstation and old meeting rooms for innovation-fostering social spaces. They no longer seek the privacy of the cubicle and are confident that constant and casual interaction with their co-workers will be the main source of their enhanced productivity.

On the other hand, open-plan offices make it difficult to concentrate, regardless of age, vision, and values. Rather than having to focus solely on their work tasks, people in an open office need to first find a way to cope with the noise and chaos that comes with accommodating a large number of people in the same place.

Those who oppose the modern-day business environment blame it for being more business-oriented than employee-focused. Open-office spaces are based on the idea that seeing and interacting with everybody else makes employees more collaborative and ultimately more productive. However, some studies have shown that the high level of noise, especially human speech, the complete lack of privacy, and an abundance of distractions – the main complaints of workers, reduce their productivity and increase stress. Instead of strengthening relationships between co-workers and increase satisfaction with the work environment, the open-office structure achieves, for some, the exact opposite effect.

Another big issue of these environments is the perception that a large mass of people is thrown in a vast open space, where they are expected to get to know, like, and ultimately motivate each other. What happens instead is, this type of workplace makes the assumption that everyone has the same needs when it comes to being productive and efficient. The open-office environment doesn’t take into account that employees may also need to be alone sometimes during the day, to focus or just to get a break.

A Different Angle

Markham Office Interior Design

One solution is to look at these problems from a different perspective. Stress and lack of intimacy are counterproductive, no question about it, but the purpose of an open-office environment was never to get too comfortable. Not being stressed may be an actual problem in the workplace, as several studies show that taking a break from stress can disrupt workflow and even affect the worker’s well-being (those who take a break from being stressed can have similar symptoms to withdrawal).

For the open-minded companies who want the collaboration and innovation open offices foster but need their employees cool and relaxed, every problem has a solution. Employees who complain of lack of privacy can consider attending to personal matters outside the office – that way they won’t have to worry about colleagues overhearing private conversations. The overwhelming pressure some feel for being constantly out in the open is many times, only an illusion, everyone is busy doing their job, not watching others doing theirs. The same goes for the disrupting sound, which can be eliminated with a pair of headphones and some relaxing ocean sounds or white noise.

The secret is to create a multi-faceted space that addresses everyone’s needs. A report from the architecture and design firm Gensler states, “Organizations will get serious about the problems of mobility and collaboration. As they recognize the benefits of face-to-face interaction, ‘getting everyone under one roof’ will grow. Mitigating conflicts between interactive and focused work will be a top priority, given the negative impact of distraction on people’s effectiveness.”

Of course, the shift from traditional to innovative will be gradual, giving organizations enough time to prepare for it and do their best to adapt to the new demands. And although a lot of buzz has been given to the incoming wave of radical workplace transformations brought forth by Millennials, most of their beliefs, values, and approaches have already infiltrated companies and keep on growing as we speak. All businesses must do is to give them space.

About the Author Lynne Lemieux

Lynne Lemieux, Founder and President of Alliance Interiors Inc., has devoted more than 20 years of experience developing and implementing growth opportunities for some of Canada's leading office furniture dealers. Her ability to provide clients with inspiring and versatile interior solutions for both business and home office environments has garnered her title of Aboriginal Business Woman of the Year in the city of Toronto for 2012. In her spare time, Lynne takes an active interest in politics, public speaking, and philanthropy, but also enjoys gardening, interior decorating, cooking, yoga, and traveling.

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