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The open office is up for debate

Posted by Lucille Moreton on August 15, 2016 at 9:00 AM
Lucille Moreton
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Open plan offices have become so pervasive that walking into an office with cubicles or actual offices can seem unusual. Offices with doors are reserved for upper management and other decision makers. The average office worker is encouraged to make do with a 2m² space in which they are expected to stay for 8 hours a day, sitting on their chair, surrounded by at least 7 employees who are all in earshot; all trying to get their work done.

Anthonia Akitunde of Open Forum looks at the criticism that open-office plans are receiving, particularly in terms of noise and lowered productivity. In her research, she found that while businesses were saving costs in terms of space, they were doing so at the expense of productivity in the office.

“Huge desktops in single offices gave way to light laptops on long tables. And it wasn’t just for the sake of increasing collaboration—a business owner can’t ignore the cost-benefit of these open spaces. A Bloomberg Businessweek article reported that at NEAD App Development, for example, “instead of leasing a cramped office for $2.50 per square foot, [founder and CEO T.J. Sokoll] got 4,000 square feet of industrial space at 69 cents a square foot.” A study by Knoll found that there was a 5.5 percent reduction in business process time and cost when offices moved to open plans.”

Open office


She further goes on to discuss how open office plans can affect employee health – germs spread quickly in an open office space – and how it also affects people’s physical wellbeing. We’re unlikely to get up and stretch properly because we don’t want to disturb others who are trying to focus.

Of course, the biggest complaint is the noise. It’s an unfortunate inevitability of working around people, but in the open-plan office, the loss of productivity due to noise is double that of the single-worker office space.

It’s not all doom and gloom though – as Anthonia explains: “Despite the backlash against open offices, many small-business owners say these open spaces are integral to how their team works.”

In any creative environment, having the input of your colleagues can be invaluable, and often our best ideas are honed to perfection by talking to other people and getting their input. It’s difficult to do that when you have to schedule appointments to talk to people; but an open-plan environment means that you can run ideas past your co-worker and get their opinion there and then. However, it’s a double edged sword – “what frustrates most employees is when collaborating, socializing and learning happen in spaces designated for focusing,” says Anthonia.  

How Penquin (and other companies) make it work

“First, employers have to understand how the office can support and inhibit their workers' productivity. Then, empowered by that knowledge, they can reevaluate how the office is being used and make appropriate changes.”

Employers should allocate different spaces in the office to serve various functions, and all people in the office should practice the discipline to respect the purpose of each space. Meetings should happen only in the boardroom, lunch should be eaten in the dining area, and private conversations should happen away from your colleague’s desks.



In our own Penquin offices, we’ve made the open plan office work for us by using these 3 rules.  We also have two private office spaces where someone can sit if they need to concentrate or finish work for a deadline.

  • Power Hour

Every day at 9am (scheduled in everyone’s calendar) is Power Hour. We get an email reminder 15 minutes before and at 9am on the dot. For the next hour, nobody is allowed to interrupt anyone else, and silence descends on the office, barring a few phones ringing and the occasional (necessary) conversations with client. If we try speak to someone who is working during power hour, we are greeted with a glare and a reminder that it’s Power Hour. While it may seem a bit overbearing, it works.

  • Respect

If a Penquin employee has a major deadline looming, the workers around them try their utmost to keep the noise levels down and requests to a minimum. Of course, this only works if deadlines and workload have been communicated, but if someone is trying to get something done, we take our conversations elsewhere.

  • The headphone rule

If someone has their headphones on, they’ve probably finally managed to tune out of the office humdrum, and being disturbed is going to snap that concentration. If the question isn’t urgent, or the answer can be Googled, we’ll wait until their headphones are off. We call it the headphone rule, but any visual indication from your colleague that they are focusing on a task should be treated with seriousness.

A bonus rule: if you have headphones, use them. Don’t play music through speakers on your laptop. Unless it’s a Friday afternoon or everyone is having a break, nobody wants to listen to Adele’s new album on repeat while they’re trying to work.

Read Anthonia Akitunde’s full blog post – “Open-Office Backlash: Seeking Productivity in a Noisy World”.

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