How to Regain Control in an Open Plan Office

Posted Jan 08, 2015

Team Building
Money Saving

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Open plan office layouts should, in theory, create happy, successful workplaces. With such great benefits, why are so many professionals feeling disgruntled by the open plan experience?

1.  Noise Level: I’m sure you’re familiar with this one. Your coworker wants to chat, but you are trying hard to get into your work zone. You want to join in on the conversation about last night’s football game, but you’re buried in files. We’ve all found ourselves distracted by the conversations of our coworkers. The truth is that although these little chats add to office bonding they also decrease productivity and increase stress levels. 
2. Loss of Privacy: Being human comes with a lot of great perks but when it comes to the modern world our ancestral preferences don’t always mesh. Humans enjoy the feeling of privacy. We do not like unwanted observations or to have our conversations overheard, yet in the modern office this is exactly the environment we are thrown into. It can be very difficult to get focused when you’re feeling this type of psychological discomfort. It seems that many would agree since privacy loss is one of the most voiced concerns with open offices. Over time psychological discomfort causes decreased performance and an increasingly negative outlook of the workplace.
3. Increased Distractions: With staff in close quarters each individual becomes hyper aware of what everyone else is doing.
All. The. Time. 
Employees are spending less time with the task at hand, and more time becoming distracted by extraneous conversations, phones ringing, and keyboards clacking.

Employees are left feeling that they have lost their privacy and their control over their workspace. How can we keep the interactive, communicative benefits of open offices while solving these problems?
Get creative with design.

1. Include Varying Partition Heights: Allow employees to feel that their space is defined but that they are still connected to the rest of the office.
2. Define High Traffic Spaces: Desks adjacent to active corridors report heavy distractions. Try to separate these work areas with slightly higher partitions.
3. Acoustics Matter: Include noise absorbing products into your design; i.e. flooring, panels, clouds, sound masking systems, etc.
4. Headphones Are Your Friend: Allow headphones. They are a great way for people to block out irrelevant conversations and get in the zone. However, don’t have them turned up so loud people have to throw things at you to get your attention.
5. Natural Light: Use natural light when you can, employees near a window report higher workplace satisfaction and increased productivity.
6. Design Collaborative Public Spaces: Assign a space for employees to congregate
7. Design Enclosed Private Spaces: Assign a space for employees to be alone
8. Encourage Environments: Encourage employees to use the varying spaces available to them. Let them know they aren’t chained to their desks!

Although professionals enjoy the collaborative, interactive nature of open office spaces, a certain level of privacy and acoustical quality must be maintained to keep workplace satisfaction, productivity, and performance up.

Share your open office experience: what do you love (or hate) about the modern office experience? What have you done to reclaim your office space?


Written by Rebekah Gorsuch


Smith-Jackson, T., & Klein, K. (2008). Open-plan offices: Task performance and mental workload. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 279-289.

Kim, J., & De Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 36, 18-26.

Yildirim, K., Akalin-Baskaya, A., & Celebi, M. (2007). The effects of window proximity, partition height, and gender on perceptions of open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27, 154-165.

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