If you believe the headlines of late – the nail is well and truly in the coffin of open plan workspaces. Lowered productivity and collaboration, increased absenteeism – the woes of this working style are seemingly endless.
While there is no denying that such issues exist – are we really ready to say goodbye to the collaborative, open workplace? Do we really want to retire back to window blinds and high partitions?
Speaking on behalf of ‘the people’, the answer is no. Despite the slew of negative press, according to our own research conducted with Future Workplace, more than half of workers in Australia and New Zealand (ANZ) prefer an open plan office. In fact, 81 percent believe that this working style is important for their productivity and engagement.
So where does that leave businesses who are struggling to overcome the challenges of open plan, to capitalise on the benefits? According to Deloitte, 80 percent of people believe that today’s leaders must now take “a nuanced approach to traditional business goals” that is better suited to the new context they now work within.
Similarly, when looking at Australian workplaces, its clear businesses need to adapt their approach to better suit the current market context. If we’re to create productive workspaces that are adaptable to market shifts, including the normalisation of open plan, we need a much more nuanced blend of spaces and technologies than we are currently leveraging.
The generational battleground in open workspaces
Accommodating generational differences is one of many growing challenges for local employers. Millennials are expected to make up almost 75% of the workforce in Australia by 2025, and yet concurrently, the retirement age is being pushed back and Baby Boomers are remaining longer in the workforce.
This is creating somewhat of a battleground of differing needs in open plan offices. More than half of Gen Z respondents, for example, say they are most productive when working around noise or talking with others, while 60 percent of Baby Boomers are most productive when it’s quiet. We also found that the younger generations are better at using technology to avoid distraction, with 35 percent of Gen Z using headphones to concentrate, compared to only 16 percent of Baby Boomers.
Distractions are cannibalising open office success
Our research also found that virtually all – 99 precent – of ANZ workers in open plan offices face distractions irrespective of age, with nearly one in three losing one hour or more of work to distractions every day. Those figures are quite disturbing for business owners, highlighting that significant time and therefore money is being lost due to open plan – rather than gained as originally envisaged.
So, while workers prefer open plan, close to all (93 percent) are getting frustrated by the continuous distractions that ultimately hinder their ability to focus and work effectively. Indeed, half of ANZ workers said that distractions make it difficult to listen or be heard on calls in an open plan environment and impact their ability to focus (51 percent).
The solution? Creating a healthy mix of open and closed spaces
The open office is unlikely to go away, given the enthusiasm it still inspires particularly amongst younger employees. However, our research showed that if employers did more to reduce workplace distractions, nearly three in four people would work in the office more and be more productive. That implies organisations should seek to create a variety of open and closed spaces that allow for team collaboration as well as quiet opportunities to focus and deal with complex, deep-dive tasks.
Technology plays a significant – and often underestimated – role in the design effectiveness of any workspace, whether open, closed, or hybridised. Solutions include equipping employees with noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate background noise, establishing more soundproofed zones where workers can step away for calls, or setting up huddle rooms and phone booths equipped with audio, video and content-sharing platforms. Used wisely, such technologies can bring the benefits of closed-door offices to an open-plan layout and vice versa, offering business leaders greater flexibility in how they adapt their workspaces within their limited budgets and timelines.
As millennials enter the workforce, communication and collaboration technology will play a growing role in creating workspaces that are agile, flexible and productive for all employees. A smarter and more productive office environment merges technology, physical space and user behaviour to adapt to employee needs, even as they evolve over time and as the organisation’s people themselves change. There is no “one size fits all” office, whether open-plan or closed-door: the best designs incorporate as much diversity as those who work within them.