If good fences make good neighbors, why are execs in love with open-plan offices?

by Adrianna Gregory


Chances are good you work in an open-plan layout—nearly three-quarters of American office workers do. Companies have implemented the space-saving layout in an effort to cut costs, encourage more collaboration among employees, or emulate innovative start-ups in the Valley. Whatever the reasons, the reality is the same: as office walls and even cubicle partitions disappear, workers are faced with a new set of obstacles to their productivity and threats to their sanity.


Noise and distraction are big challenges in the modern workplace, and most companies do not have the strategies in place to help their workers deal with the chaos, according to the results of our survey of more than 600 senior executives and 600 employees around the world. These findings probably are not surprising to anyone who reports to an open-plan office themselves. (I’m listening to the sound of ocean waves on my white-noise app as I edit this post; Ed Cone, who ran this research program with me, prefers a “rainy mood” website.)


Inadequate technology is an issue, too. Nearly two-thirds of employees say problems with technology at work affect their performance, and 39% are frequently frustrated with their tools. And as more and more people begin to work remotely, whether by choice or in response to a company mandate, businesses will have to rethink their strategies in this area; currently, many employees do not have the tools they need to do their jobs well outside the office, yet 47% say their bosses expect them to be available after-hours frequently or always.


These are big problems, and most managers don’t get it. Leadership tends to underestimate the negative effects of ambient noise on their employees’ productivity and satisfaction, and too few have implemented strategies to address the issues. It may be because executives often live in their own world: a majority said they have their own private office, and they are much more likely than employees to say they have the technology they need.


Open-plan layouts and the pressure to be always connected are realities of the modern workplace, and probably not going away anytime soon. Companies that make a plan to help employees navigate this new environment are better positioned to see the benefits they were looking for when they made the decision to tear down those office walls, from collaboration and innovation to a more collegial culture.


Be sure to stay tuned for more results—we’ll be releasing a series of infographics over the next few weeks that get more specific about the perception gap between executives and employees, dealing with noise and distraction, the evolving workplace, and managing technology.

Adrianna Gregory is the Associate Editor for Technology at Oxford Economics.