Open Office Space – A Hindrance or a Help?

Open Office Space – A Hindrance or a Help?

Recent years have seen a move away from traditional office spaces which have been replaced by more social ways of working.

Many recent co-working spaces set up in Singapore offer the same type of set-up, with large open-plan areas and few segregated offices. As well as making the most of the space available, previous research suggested this had many other advantages too.

However, before you get ready to break down the walls and create one big co-working space for all your employees, it might be worth doing a little more research. Concepts such as hot-desking and open-plan seating have captured the imagination of Singaporean businesses but have they proven to be a success?

Recent studies have suggested that open-plan offices don’t suit everyone and could be more of a hindrance than a help. We take a closer look at whether the modern ideals of open-plan interior design really deliver the best results for business.

The Rise of The Open Office Space

The theory of open office spaces seems solid; creating a communal area where it’s easier for workers to collaborate and share ideas. One best-selling book declares, “We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity and people walking by and teaching each other new things.”

The idea is that interconnected areas will work in a much more fluid way with more spontaneous communication and a natural flow.

The above theory has led to many more offices redesigning their space to become open-plan. In some areas, as many as 80% are open-plan offices now. Hot-desking often goes hand-in-hand with an open-plan design, with no assigned desks and workers free to sit somewhere different every day.

It may sound like an interesting principle, but how has open plan office interior design worked out in practice?

A Contradictory Effect

Although the idea is that an open-plan office will increase socialisation, research has shown that the reverse appears to be true.

One study from a group of psychologists found that the forced levels of interaction and lack of privacy led workers to withdraw, an unconscious effort to create the personal space that was lacking physically. Another reason for the drop in communication was that many workers felt overwhelmed by an open-plan environment, becoming overstimulated by the proximity of so many people.

The quality of friendships suffered too, with a lack of intimacy compared to workers where the space was split into smaller offices. Hot-desking made matters worse, removing the opportunities to form more than just a casual acquaintance.

To put this into perspective: one group of employees reduced the amount of time they spent interacting with their colleagues every day face-to-face by 67% when they moved to an open office space. Another observed group went from interacting for 5.8 hours every day to just 1.8 hours. The statistics are startling.

But does less socialisation really matter and is there any correlation with quality of work and performance?

A Drop in Performance

As it turns out, a drop in communication and collaboration also impacts on performance. In study after study, the results revealed that performance and productivity were both poorer within an open-plan space.

The biggest study of its kind, published in the prestigious Journal of Environmental Psychology, found that enclosed offices outperformed open-plan offices in every way with the perceived benefit of easier interaction being vastly outweighed by the negatives.

The noise of everyone in one large office appears to be another factor that can’t be sidestepped; even the best acoustics can’t circumvent the sound of a lot of activity. Disturbances weren’t limited to sounds either; constant movement around the peripheral vision or colleagues coming and going was found to be profoundly distracting.

In laboratory tests, those working in open-plan offices were found to have reduced cognitive performance and with poorer mental acuity. Motivation and creativity were stifled too and the more senior the employee, the more pronounced the effect seemed to become.

Productivity in open-plan offices is also adversely affected by absenteeism; the more people in the space, the greater the level of sickness. Reports suggest that large open-plan offices increase the amount of sick leave by up to 62%.

Accommodating Diversity

Aside from performance and interpersonal relations, there are other factors to consider too. Singapore has a reputation for being a society which has positive racial and religious integration, with a diversity in the workplace which is particularly harmonious.

This focus has been recognised by the Singaporean government, with Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Health, Amy Khor saying, “Embracing racial harmony is integral to Singapore’s progress. It is imperative that businesses instil the right values to promote inclusiveness and communal harmony at workplaces.”

Many employers in Singapore have warmly embraced the idea of inclusive practice which means accommodating different secular needs throughout the working day. While not legally required, for many employers this has meant providing a private area for religious purposes. For employees who wish to conduct religious practices during the day, the ability to do so respectfully and in an appropriate area is a significant benefit.

In an open-plan office, it’s not as easy to create these types of spaces, whether they’re for religious purposes or another reason. Offices with an enclosed layout enables the inclusion of these spaces in a more discreet way, allowing access as necessary. Therefore, for interior design in Singapore, an open plan office may not be ideal.

An Acceptable Solution

Almost universally, every study and survey seems to suggest that workers simply aren’t as happy or productive in an environment where they’re forced into a goldfish bowl with everyone else. Privacy produces improved performance but for the majority of businesses, it’s simply not possible to provide everyone with their own space. Open-plan offices are significantly cheaper too and are more economical with space, so what’s the solution?

The way forward may be to take the best of both designs. A hub-and-spoke design provides smaller and more intimate areas for employees to work, leading out to communal areas which encourage collaboration and interaction. By re-designing the office space to take the needs of both employer and employee into account, the end result could be very beneficial for all concerned.

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