3 Unfortunate Truths About Open Offices and What We Can Do About Them

Let’s take a closer look at three major challenges of working in an open office and three ways employers can lessen their negative impact on employees.

Liz Stevens
Oct 5 · 4 min read
Image by Cadeau Maestro from Pexels

1. Open Offices Don’t Accomplish What They Intend to Do

Open offices have long been praised for increasing creativity, communication and teamwork, but the research shows open offices do the exact opposite. In an open office, face-to-face interactions decreased by 70 percent while email messages increased by 50 percent. Workers were less productive and their open workspaces had a negative effect on attention spans, creative thinking and job satisfaction. When compared to workers in a standard office layout, workers in open offices had higher stress levels and lower concentration and motivation.

There are only three people in my little open office and there are still times when it’s impossible to focus. Whether a coworker is on a call, discussing a project with a supervisor, or chatting with a colleague, it’s hard to stay on track with the task at hand. Recently, a coworker left our office for a much larger one and she’s having a rough time adjusting. Dozens of voices overlap in the wide-open area and drown out the constant background music that seems to be an attempt to buffer the noise.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the space is, open offices are chaotic and distracting.

2. We Play Pass The Sickness

Employees working in open offices took 62 percent more sick days, according to a national survey from Denmark. Another study followed a small group of employees as they moved from a private office plan to an open plan and the employees reported that their health, job satisfaction and productivity had deteriorated after making the switch. Yet another study found that those in open offices took significantly more short-term sick leave than those in private offices. Our coughs and sneezes can spread millions of germs around the room within seconds, even when we catch them with a sleeve or a tissue.

We have every right to side-eye the coworker who comes in with a rattling cough and a nose rubbed red from blowing their nose, even though they’d much rather be at home and probably don’t have sick time or someone who can cover their responsibilities while they’re out.

3. There’s Nowhere to Hide

We all have bad days. In an open office, it’s not easy to isolate yourself when you’re not up for socializing. You’re often in full view of your coworkers. It’s difficult to hide your feelings, which, when you’re feeling all-the-feelings can make you feel embarrassed or insecure.

This one, I’ll admit, is my personal pain point with open offices. I’m sensitive and introverted. Even if I leave the room and cry it out in the bathroom for a few minutes when I’m having a hard time, my face is still beat red when I walk back in and I feel like everyone knows. All I want to do is dive into work to distract myself when I’m having a bad day, but instead, I’m MORE distracted by how my mood is being interpreted by coworkers.

Now that we’ve identified three key issues with open offices, let’s take a look at three ways employers can reduce their impact on employees:

1. Say It With Me: Noise-Canceling Headphones

There’s an easy solution to the audible distractions that plague the open office, that is if employers are willing to pay up. Conversations between coworkers or coworkers taking business calls at their desks aren’t as distracting if you can’t hear them. Did you know you can buy noise-cancelling headphones in bulk for as little as $6.50 a piece? I can’t verify how well they work, but it’s not an unreasonable solution, especially if the alternative is completely overhauling your office design.

2. Keep Sick Employees Away

If employers already allow flexibility this one is a no-brainer, let employees work from home until they’ve kicked their head colds to the curb. And don’t ask for a doctor’s note unless it’s an extended absence. Rather than pay the copay to see an urgent care doctor some employees will push through their illness at work, undoubtedly passing it around the office.

It’s a fair point that some industries don’t have the luxury of letting employees work from home when they’re sick, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be flexible. Apps like Shyft make is easy to trade shifts, without making HR work overtime to sort it out.

Some companies even incentivize wellness. Years ago, when I worked in retail, our store manager gave us free ice cream if we went to the pharmacy and got a flu shot on our breaks. You bet your ass I got that free ice cream (it was a strawberry shortcake bar for anyone who’s curious).

3. Support Mental Health at Work

Is there a place (that isn’t the bathroom) where employees can go when they need to be alone in a quiet space for a few minutes? Is there a mental health policy in place? Is there someone in management employees can feel comfortable talking to when they’re struggling with something professionally or personally? None of these things would have saved me from feeling insecure or embarrassed when I returned to my desk after crying in the bathroom, but at least I wouldn’t have been paranoid about my job security.

None of these solutions is going to fix every challenge that the open office presents, but they can help minimize the negative effects that open offices have on employees, and that’s a good place to start.

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Liz Stevens

Written by

Interested in how online lives affect us IRL, personal growth, self-awareness, feminism, relationships, mental health, compassion and vulnerability.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +537K people. Follow to join our community.

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