Why Your Open Office isn’t Working (and How to Fix it)

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While it’s most commonly associated with tech startups, over 70% of all workplaces have now adopted an open office design. Managers love the transparency, collaboration, and innovation that comes from removing barriers between team members. The fact that open offices are cost-effective is the cherry on top.

So why do employees seem to hate them so much?

The backlash against the open office has been loud and angry. For instance, ad exec Lindsey Kauffman called her company’s recent switch to an open office “remarkably oppressive,” claiming that the noise, constant interruptions, and feeling of always being watched make it impossible to get work done. 

Anecdotally, you’ve probably heard similar stories, and the data backs it up. One study found that open offices lead to a 15% dip in productivity, while others estimate the decline could be as much as 66%

But if you’re one of the many who have adopted an open office plan, all is not lost. If you break the open office problem down into its components and take steps to address each one, you can reclaim your productivity and increase team morale. Here are the three biggest problems with the open office, and how to solve them. 

1. Noise


Phones ringing. Printers whirring. Colleagues chattering. There’s just so much to hear at work, so it’s no surprise that noise is the number one complaint about open offices. A 2013 University of Sydney study found that nearly 60% of open-office workers cited unwanted sounds as the biggest morale drain at work.

And it’s not just that these noises are annoying. They make people worse at their jobs too. Researchers from Cornell performed an experiment in which they tested the productivity of two groups of clerical workers: one in a quiet room, and one in a room with 55 decibels of noise—the same as the average office. They found the group in the noisy room got less done, made fewer attempts to solve problems, and even showed higher levels of adrenaline, suggesting a mild fight or flight response.

The study confirms what many of us know from experience. A noisy workplace is stressful and drains productivity.

Solution: Designated Quiet Areas

In an effort to combat the noise issue but still retain the collaborative aspects of the open office, several companies are moving toward flexible-design offices with both open areas and enclosed, quiet spaces. 

Commercial real estate firm CBRE is one of the bigger companies embracing flexible design. Their new Los Angeles office is a perfect example. There are no assigned workspaces. Each day, employees can choose to work at tables in open areas, conference rooms for team projects, or quiet, single-person rooms for when they really want to concentrate. Employees say the move has led to higher energy and morale.

If you’re locked into a lease with an open office or can’t find flexible space, you still have options. Office design firm Steelcases sells pods called Quiet Spaces you can put up in any office. 

There’s no doubt that finding an office with quiet spaces (or building your own) takes a lot of effort up front. But the extra productivity will pay dividends in the long term, and your employees will thank you for it.

2. ”Hey, do you have a second? Thanks.”

One of the reasons people initially embraced the open office was the easy collaboration it allows. Get all your company’s brainpower in one room, and team members can bounce ideas off each other and innovate, or so the thinking goes. 

It’s true that group brainstorming can produce great ideas. But what ends up happening too often is that team members pull each other away from work. Nearly everyone who’s been in an open office has been on both sides of this. It’s just so easy to bother someone with a question (that you could probably figure out yourself) when they’re right there next to you. That leads to lazy communication, which decreases the open office’s collaborative power. 

The effects on productivity are worse than you’d think. Research shows that when people are interrupted, it can take them as long as 25 minutes to return to the original task. So if all five of your desk-mates separately ask you a question throughout the day, that’s more than two hours down the drain. Suffice it to say, the losses add up quickly. 

Solution: Do-not-disturb signs

You’re probably familiar with the do-not-disturb signs in hotels. You pop one on your door, hotel staff know you’re busy, and they leave you alone until the sign comes off.

Everyone who’s ever worked in an open office has wished for that option. 

The thing is, it’s totally feasible. One company is already making it possible. Plenom Office Intelligence now offers the Kuando Busylight, a small, siren-like light you can attach to your desk or cubicle. When the light is red, it means you’re busy and can’t be disturbed. When it’s green, you’re open for business. Or, you could go the old-fashioned route and have employees write out their own do-not-disturb signs. 

Physical indicators like that are powerful because they leave zero ambiguity as to whether someone is available. After all, your team members aren’t trying to be jerks when they interrupt each other. They probably don’t even realize how detrimental it is. Most people are considerate enough to respect a clear sign that someone is busy, and save their questions for later.

3. Lack of Personal Space


People crave autonomy at work, and that desire extends to the physical workspace itself. A survey by architectural firm Gensler confirmed that control over their space was at the top of the wish list for American workers, and one they felt was being ignored.

One of the reasons they want this autonomy is for simple physical comfort. Research compiled by another architectural firm, Herman Miller, report that workers are happier and more productive when they can control things like temperature, lighting, and furniture. Anyone can relate to that.

But there are deeper psychological reasons too. One study tested employees’ mood and work performance in workspaces of varying levels of privacy and personal customization, and found that those on the low end felt emotionally exhausted. We see this play out anecdotally too. It’s no coincidence that one of Ms. Kauffman’s biggest complaints was the feeling that her coworkers were judging everything from when she left for the day to how often she used the restroom.

Solution: work-from-home days

There’s no environment we feel more control over or more comfortable in than our homes, which is one of the reasons remote work is on the rise in the United States.

The federal government in on the cutting edge of this trend, with several agencies adopting extensive work-from-home policies. Case in point: In an effort to give employees more control over their work environment, The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) started a flexible remote work policy. It’s been a huge success. 27% of the FDIC’s 8,000 employees work from home up to three days a week, and managers work with each employee to come up with the optimal schedule. As a result, those part-time remote employees are 18% more productive. 

You can do the same thing, and give your team the flexibility to schedule days to work from home. They can get all their concentration-heavy, solo work done on those days, and save collaborative projects and meetings for the rest of the week. It’s the best of both worlds. 

With Open Offices, Less Can Be More

There’s no denying that open offices save money and foster collaboration. No one’s saying you should completely abandon them. 

But too much of a good thing becomes damaging. Your team needs a break from the open office, and each of these tactics gives them opportunities to catch their breath, get some alone time, and focus 100% on producing great work. That ensures that when they are out in the open office, they’re enthusiastic and getting the most out of it.