open office employee productivity

How to keep open offices from shutting down productivity

People are sick of open offices – and that is not a figure of speech. The lack of privacy and personal space can be toxic, physically and emotionally. The result is a 70% increase in sick days for those working in an open floor plan versus a traditional office environment.

Sickness-related absenteeism is a key issue, but that’s not the only productivity-killing aspect of wide-open working spaces. For instance, researchers from Harvard discovered that, although open offices are meant to inspire collaboration, open office workers actually shy away from it, using email much more and personal interaction much less than their traditional counterparts. They lose an average of 86 minutes of productive time a day to distractions. And, with all that extraneous auditory and visual input, they are less able to perform tasks that require complex thinking.

Fortunately, there are measures that any organization can implement to create a more productive environment. Here are four steps that can help keep workers healthy, in the office and on the job.

Four steps to improving productivity in open offices

1. Make your open space a more natural one
Open offices tend to toward a cool, clean, high-tech look – in other words, they can be sterile and psychologically unsatisfying. People draw comfort and calm from natural elements in the workspace, so much so that a university study showed a 15% increase in productivity after the introduction of even a few potted plants. Open office managers are wise to take a little of that space and convert it into indoor green space, for sitting, taking a break or even that hoped-for collaborating.

2. Avoid the trauma of continual open office optimization
First, the office walls came down, depriving workers of privacy and general peace of mind. Then, the desks got closer together. Now, in the name of efficiency, those desks are going away, too. Offices are “hoteling” and “hot-desking,” eliminating assigned workspaces for optimal flexibility – for the company. For employees, however, that “flexibility” translates to greater daily complexity, lower productivity and a feeling that they have to leave work to get anything done (a concern for nearly a third of all open office workers). Before changing your office setup, create a plan to mitigate worker stress, considering what will make it easiest for employees to thrive in the new environment (e.g., assigned lockers at the entrance/exit, or a “Co-Worker Concierge” to assign daily desks or mediate disputes over space).

3. Head off “toxic employee” syndrome
Every office has them: toxic co-workers, those whose negativity or Machiavellian tendencies are amplified by the greater accessibility of open working environments. Open offices require an intentional, on-going HR program, including co-worker sensitivity training, clear policies about maintaining privacy and boundaries, and easy access to management intervention when required. Without that support, employees will spend too much time trying to “hide in plain sight” from problematic co-workers.

4. Fight infections hand-to-hand
Finally, open offices should do what every office should do: work harder to prevent the spread of infections. As some 80% of infections are spread by touch – using shared keyboards, touching the tops of those shared “hot desks,” or simply by shaking hands – every open office should have a program to encourage what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) calls the best way to prevent infections: effective handwashing.

To make it effective, you will need to educate employees on how long they must wash their hands to remove germs along with the dirt, provide hand sanitizer throughout the office, and routinely disinfect germ-prone surfaces. By reducing the opportunity for infections via a multi-pronged approach, you’ll significantly reduce the productivity impact of both absenteeism and presentism (working while sick).

Studies show that, in spite of their popularity, open offices can diminish employee well-being by 32%, reduce total productivity by 15%, and, because of that, end up with higher total costs than traditional office spaces. What steps are you taking to keep your open office from shutting you down?

Forbes: How your open office plan is killing your privacy and safety
PsyPost: How open offices are killing us
Inc: Open office plans kill productivity
Inc: 9 reasons open office spaces are insanely stupid
Fast Company: Everyone hates open office spaces
Newsmax: 80% of infections spread by hands: CDC
cipHR: 7 benefits of having plants in your office