Before, there were cubicles, employees separated by small partitions, tucked away in their ‘mini offices’. But in the 90s, growing tech companies brought back the open-plan design and others followed suit. This has become the typical workplace setting today, with over 8 million UK employees working in open-plan environments.

The idea behind open-plan offices is to nurture a company identity and build a sense of community within the workplace. By removing physical barriers, employees are encouraged to communicate and collaborate more with each other. Having everyone sit and work together in the same space also hopes to break down any existing hierarchies – managers and higher-ups aim to be more approachable to their teams for support or guidance. 

But having different types of people with different working styles in one setting can prove tricky. Some research actually condemns open-plan offices, stating that they are distracting and can actually discourage face-to-face interactions.

What’s Hampering Productivity?

  • Feeling exposed – Working where you see everyone, and everyone sees you can cause stress and pressure for some employees who feel like they’re being observed at all times. This can contribute to workers withdrawing from face-to-face interactions, resorting to virtual communications and only pretending to be engaged by looking at their screens.
  • Physical distractions – The noise and visual stimuli present from working in an open-plan office can hinder people’s ability to focus on the task at hand. People want to work, as found by Oxford Economics, and employees state finding ways to block out these distractions helps to improve their productivity, work accuracy and focus.
  • Poorer health/wellbeing – When a large number of people are in close proximity every day, illnesses are more likely to spread. A study in Denmark found that workers in open-plan offices took 62% more sick days than those in enclosed offices.

Granted you can’t uproot and redesign the whole workplace, there are certain steps you can take to mitigate these negative impacts and help your team work better in this environment.


1. Provide The Option To Work Remotely


Although the purpose of the open-plan space is to encourage collaboration, Unispace found that as much as 60% of the average working day is still dedicated to individual tasks, with only 25% for collaborating. The absence of a private enclosed space can make completing tasks requiring focus particularly difficult. Providing people with the flexibility to work from home, free from office distractions, can help employees work through their task list more efficiently.


2. Encourage Employees To Personalise Their Workstations


Having a private space can give employees a sense of control in their environment. Without it, they may feel uncomfortable in their surroundings – seemingly trivial things like the office temperature can seriously affect productivity. By allowing and encouraging workers to personalise their desks, whether that’s having a potted plant and decorations, or small fans or heaters, can make people feel more comfortable and in control of their space.


3. Create Different Work Areas Within The Office


This will largely depend on your available resources, but it’s important to create various working spaces to suit different purposes, e.g. small meeting rooms, cubicles for phone/video conferences, or ‘quiet zones’ for focused work. Unispace found that the average working day is generally split into tasks that fall into one of these four categories: focus, collaborate, learn and socialise. By catering to different needs and combining them with the open-plan layout, employees have the option to choose the place where they think they can get their work done the best without feeling like they need to get away.


4. Regularly Check In With Your Team


An open office layout can really make ‘open-door’ policies easier to put in practice – colleagues can pop over to your desk for a short impromptu discussion. But you need to ensure you set up a regular, pre-determined time with individual team members to discuss their work progress which you can setup using an HR system and tackle anything that is getting in the way. Being in an open space where everyone can overhear your conversations can make some people self-conscious about speaking, leading to superficial conversations or not being able to say what they really want.


5. Set Up Guidelines On Using Shared Facilities


Using conference and small meeting rooms beyond their original purpose can be a great way to accommodate and provide temporary private spaces for your workers. When not in use for meetings, they can be useful for workers who need a quiet and distraction-free environment to focus on an important task without leaving the office. To prevent any conflicts about the use of meeting rooms as temporary personal workspaces, it’s crucial to have guidelines set up so they are used fairly.

The open-plan office doesn’t have to be a demon that kills productivity. Whether your company is looking to have an open-plan office layout or has already made the move, take advantage of the space that promotes social interaction and collaboration. And at the same time, understand how your employees work, so you can provide the support they need to keep them away from distractions and working productively.