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Office Privacy: A Perk More Craved Than A Salary Increase?

We recently surveyed over 2,100 U.S. office workers to learn what they like – and dislike – about their office layout. While we read and hear a lot about the major benefits to employees of coworking office layouts and open office floorplans, the people actually working in offices sometimes see things differently.

Contrary to popular opinion, nearly 66% of the office workers we spoke to ranked private office layouts and home offices as their ideal type of office. Coworking and open plan offices were ranked amongst the least-favored office floorplans by the office workers that use them.

Arguments for Open Office Floorplans

That’s somewhat surprising, given that over the last 20 years open office designs have skyrocketed in popularity. According to a recent Gallup Survey, today nearly 70% of U.S. offices utilize an open office plan.

The open office floorplan idea started out innocently enough. It was a way for the next generation of cutting-edge entrepreneurs to set themselves and their employees apart from the boring firms of yesteryear.

Open office floorplans are supposed to accomplish a number of goals including:

  • Emphasize the flattened hierarchy and hip environment of today’s entrepreneurial businesses
  • Boost communication, collaboration, and innovation
  • Increase employee health and happiness and productivity

But if cool office floorplans featuring minimalist design, collaboration spaces, break pods, and auditorium-like bleacher-style seating for impromptu company meetings are so great, why do so many office workers want their privacy back?

The Incredible Shrinking Office

One reason that office workers are increasingly craving privacy is that office spaces aren’t only becoming more open, they’re also becoming smaller. Last year the average amount of office space per worker in North America was 151 square feet, compared to 225 square feet back in 2010. That’s a decrease of 33% in less than 10 years.

Rising rents across the top office markets in the U.S. have a lot to do with offices shrinking in size as companies try to cut costs. Smaller offices are also becoming the norm as coworking office firms such as WeWork, Knotel, and Industrious sign master leases for large amounts of office space. Converting their office space into shared, open design leaves less square footage on the market for traditional private offices.

But while employers and rapidly growing coworking office companies promote the benefits of open office plans, the lack of office privacy is hurting the same workers that open design is meant to help.

How the Lack of Privacy in Open Office Floorplans Hurts More Than Helps

Open office floorplans with trendy amenities are a status symbol for the companies that have them, but not always for the employees that have to work in them 9 to 5. When Apple Park introduced their totally open pod design office plan recently, some of the people who had to work in the ‘innovative’ space threatened to quit.

Open office floorplan design certainly mirrors the reduced bureaucracy in today’s business world. But recently we’ve begun to see some of the unintended consequences of offices designed with an open floorplan:

  • Collaboration becomes a full-time activity, leaving little time left to get individual work done,
  • In order to complete more tasks, people end up distancing themselves from collaborating coworkers,
  • As a result of increased interruptions, people become less productive and produce lower quality work.

Some office workers are more immune to distraction than others. They’ll seek out a quiet corner workspace and don super-sized headphones to send a not-so-discreet signal to coworkers, letting them know they’re working on something really important.

Other people working in everyday back office tasks or back office functions may actually welcome interruptions to their routine work because, let’s face it, reconciling somebody’s monthly expense report isn’t all that time sensitive.

Open Office Floorplans Can Also Make Innovation Difficult

Offices with open floorplan designs are fine for people who work in everyday problem solving. But open designs can end up hurting high-performance employees – or HPEs – who are focused on innovation and finding the next big idea.

HPEs need an office environment that is quiet and calm because they work on projects that can be days or even weeks long. While high-performance employees can be found in businesses of all shapes and sizes, they’re most often found in software and hardware, financial services, creative and marketing, and design firms – the same industries that have raced to embrace the open office and coworking trends.

Does the Lack of Privacy Mean the Open Office Floorplan Trend Is Coming to An End?

Open office plans can be great when used correctly by the right businesses for the right reasons. But when companies embrace form over function and choose an open office design simply for the sake of being cool and trendy, the lack of office privacy leads to declining productivity.

One solution to the office privacy crisis is by using an intelligently balanced mix of private, semi-private, and – yes – open office space. Known as ABW, or activity-based workplace design, this office design concept allows employees to choose how and where they want to work, rather than being forced into one-size-fits-all, privacy-free office plan. ABW office design meets the privacy needs of high-performance employees and task-based workers while allowing companies to convey their brand image.

Companies using an activity-based workplace office design might have one floor of office space with assigned semi-private work areas, another floor with private offices and suites, and third floor with an open office design including shared office space, conference rooms, and social areas. Office workers get the privacy they crave and give their employers the innovation and productivity the company is looking for.

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