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Open offices not for everyone

Open-plan offices may save the company money and foster better communication, but they are making workers sick, stressed and under-productive, Australian scientists have found.

Open-plan offices may save the company money and foster better communication, but they are making workers sick, stressed and under-productive, Australian scientists have found.

Dr. Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation began studying the health effects of workplace setups as employers embraced “novel” concepts. Bosses are happy with the open areas, as staff can quickly move in and start work. They also save 20 per cent in construction costs, compared to a traditional, closed office.

“But no one is looking into the evidence to see if employees are satisfied with an open-plan work environment,” Oommen said from his office in Brisbane, Australia. He and his team reviewed a global pool of research. What they found was “absolutely shocking,” he said. The study, published in the Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, found the open-office environment leads to higher stress and lower productivity.

Employees also get sick more, as flu and cold bugs fly around the air unimpeded by walls. Listening to your neighbour’s Baby’s Got Back ringtone for 20 minutes while they’re on lunch also ratchets up bad feelings, making for unhappy staff who are likely to drive up the turnover rate, the study found.

Open-plan offices lead to a high level of noise, loss of concentration, low work productivity, issues with privacy, lack of status, feelings of insecurity, job dissatisfaction, higher levels of stress, physical exhaustion and increased blood pressure levels. And, as anyone who watches the NBC show The Office knows, it makes workplace conflict almost inevitable.

In 90 per cent of the research Oomman’s team looked at, staff who worked in open-plan offices saw them in a negative light.

The positive aspects of open-plan offices, such as better communication, collaboration and increased accommodation for different employees, are greatly outweighed by the downsides.

“Based on this evidence, we urge all managers across the world to reconsider the use of an open-plan work environment,” Oomman concluded. “We should develop facilities in the future based on what employees want, and it should not be based on building costs.”

 
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