Why the Open Plan Office Is Broken and How to Fix It

Over the years, the open plan office has become a chaotic, distracting environment but new solutions like privacy phone booths help keep the peace.

Through the latter decades of the 20th Century, offices underwent a gradual transformation, from resembling factory floors rung with executive suites to maze-like cubicle farms to the open plan office format that has become ubiquitous today.

Initially conceived to solve previous models’ shortcomings like too much spatial hierarchy and potential worker isolation, the open plan office introduced new problems that have become equally challenging to workplace productivity and collaboration.

What makes the open plan office unique?

There are several distinguishing characteristics that most open plan offices feature:

  • “Bench” style desks: Rather than private offices or cubicles, workers sit closely spaced along rows of connected tabletops. This tight proximity is intended to make collaboration seamless between adjacent colleagues.
  • Minimal partitioning: Open plan offices typically incorporate few partitions, save perhaps low walls between desk rows which are easy to peer over when standing. Removing visual barriers between workers is supposed to invite spontaneous and inventive conversation.
  • Team-based organization: Employees working on a shared project are often seated together in “pods” to facilitate direct and ongoing communication throughout the workday. .
  • Less spatial hierarchy: Most of the open plan office is dedicated to benching and shared spaces like conference rooms, kitchens, and lounges. While some workers may have private offices, they are typically small and positioned in the center of the office space and away from windows to reserve natural light and views for the majority of workers in the open spaces.

What’s wrong with the open office?

Though well-intentioned and offering some real benefits, studies have shown the open plan office also creates conditions that impair productivity and collaboration:

  • Distractions: Perhaps the most common complaint from open office workers is how easy it can be to get distracted. More people closer together means everyone can hear every conversation and noises travel further across the space. Tasks requiring prolonged focus are particularly difficult in this chaotic environment.
  • Less collaboration: Not as obvious but equally pervasive it turns out, open plan offices actually lead to less face-to-face interaction than cubicle formats according to several studies, such as this Harvard analysis. For example, headphones, not wanting to bother people, etc.

Learn how the Bento phone booth provides acoustic privacy and manages sound to cut down on distractions in the workplace.

Why is the open office not going away?

Unfortunately for its detractors, the open office format is probably here to stay despite its drawbacks:

  • More cost-effective: Open plan layouts require substantially fewer square feet per employee than formats emphasizing cubicles or private offices. This means companies can accommodate larger workforces for less rent per worker, a formula that is hard to resist.
  • More flexible post-COVID: As the future of work after the pandemic reveals itself, flexibility has become a dominant theme. For example, many companies are making work from home a permanent option for staff. Moving forward, workers may only need to commute to the office periodically, such as for important meetings or to meet with clients. With fewer people in the office every day, it will make less and less sense to dedicate desks and offices to individuals who rarely use them. Instead, offices may start to resemble coworking spaces, favoring shared desks and pods over assigned seating. With fewer walls and modular, movable furniture, the open plan office format offers the flexibility needed to adapt to this new paradigm of work.

The office phone booth is a simple and effective remedy for distraction in the workplace

Given open plan offices will likely remain the dominant workplace model in the future, companies should consider introducing new resources to help manage distractions and facilitate employee focus and productivity. The most impactful investments will be those that help manage noise and provide acoustic privacy.

The phone booth provides a compact, comfortable space for workers taking calls and video conferences so their conversations do not distract others busy nearby. Booths also offer refuge for people seeking a quiet place to concentrate for a while. 

Modular and easy to reposition in the workplace, phone booths provide a flexible solution for one of the most prominent and persistent challenges of the open plan office.

Learn more about how the Bento phone booth is an excellent choice for your workplace adaptation plan.

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