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Offices, open-plan workspaces found to lower worker productivity

open workspace plan office
Posted at 7:23 PM, Dec 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-30 01:21:32-05

Data released in 2022 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (USBLS) saw business productivity and worker results basically stagnate over the last year, with productivity remaining down compared to last year.

It's the first time that three consecutive declines in employee productivity has happened since 1982.

When looking at the data summary, USBLS basically shows declines across the board, or dismal results.

A Computer World report found it's not as simple as saying workers aren't working hard enough.

Caroline Walsh of Gartner’s HR research said while there are a number of factors at play, she told Computer World that forcing workers back to offices and open work spaces didn't increase productivity like many executives had hoped.

“We saw a knee-jerk reaction earlier this year. We know CEOs and other executives were worried that work wouldn’t get done, but we didn’t actually see work not getting done — until organizations began mandating a return to the office,” she said.

Walsh also said that employers seldom told employees why they needed to return to the office after months, and even years, of working successfully while remote.

“That’s incredibly disempowering and disengaging for employees, particularly for those who’ve shown over time they can work remotely, which we know has improved feeling of inclusion,” she said.

And research has supported the drive against working in offices, especially in open-plan workspaces, for years.

In 2019, the Harvard Business Review looked at workers just before the pandemic, and found they were being moved out of offices and into open-plan workspaces with the hope of increasing idea sharing and collaboration. But, it wasn't working.

The analysis showed that the increase in collaboration with more applications like virtual meeting software combined with open workspaces was actually found to produce less meaningful interaction, instead of the desired increase.

Research found that as firms made the switch to open office plans, they found that face-to-face interaction dropped by 70%, according to the Harvard Business Review.

In Nir Eyal's book "Indistractable," he explains distractions can arise in meetings that encourage too much collaboration. Eyal says that while three people in a meeting can work, if each person has a purpose for being there, six people in a meeting (over webcam or in person) can go off the rails if the idea of collaboration is encouraged.

Eyal says "group chat is best avoided all together when discussing sensitive topics." While in this context he was speaking about the benefits of communicating one-on-one online, the same idea can apply to the open-office concept and its lack of privacy. When the need arises to discuss sensitive topics, workers are left feeling out of control of their environment, seeking a private nook or sneaking into a conference room that they haven't formally booked just to find privacy.

A Forbes report found privacy complaints increased as workers found it difficult to do simple tasks like make phone calls with the needed privacy to do so, with focus.

“Personal phone calls aside, we find many people say ‘privacy’ when they mean ‘control over my environment’. Helping employees easily find and book space in their workplace for focus time, private phone calls, and collaborative meetings is critical and can relieve much of the social anxiety around not knowing where to go or understanding if a space is truly available,” said Zach Dunn, founder of the Boston-based SaaS workplace management platform Robin.

A 2018 Get Room open-office satisfaction report found that 1 in 8 workers in open offices in the U.S. said the office layout pushed them to consider leaving their job.

The report found that it only makes workers more resentful of senior staff who have private offices, or are able to work remotely with flexibility.

A 2022 Gallup Workplace report found that stress among the global workforce has, again, reached an all-time high.

The report found that 44% of employees experienced "a lot" of stress from the previous day, with nearly half of workers around the globe saying they felt the "burden" of stress.

Women in North America were found to be the most stressed employees compared to other workers globally, Gallup found.

An interesting facet of that data found that while workers in the U.S. and Canada were some of the most worried and stressed in the world, they were also found to be some of the most engaged workers on Earth.