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How Open Office Spaces Affect Productivity
Posted on Thursday, March 23, 2023
How Open Office Spaces Affect Productivity

March 23, 2023 - Open plan office design is nothing new. Whether you buy into the theory that open plan offices increase collaboration, productivity and innovation or if you take the position that real estate costs are driving a compacted footprint to maximize employee space occupation, it is a safe bet that the overall design is here to stay. Having recently built-out a new space and relocated the employees of Lencore, I can honestly say that the open plan office accomplishes collaboration and innovation in a cost-effective manner. But productivity and distraction can be of real concern.

What is an Open Office Plan?

An open office plan is the removal of walls and other physical structures, like partitions and cubicles, with the result of a vast open area. Commercial Café's blog provides insight into the history of the open office plan concept as well as it's pros and cons for both employees and employer.

Why Have Open Plan Layouts Become More Popular?

There are really two schools of thought as it relates to the trend of open office plans but they are not mutually exclusive. The first theory is that opening up a space increases the amount of interactions, random or planned, between and amongst departments. For instance, suddenly the sales and engineering teams are talking face to face about trends in the market or feature-set capabilities of product. Or, human resources is exposed to the overloaded demand of the finance department and recognizes more human capital is needed. With the adoption of work-from-home policies due to COVID-19, never has it been more evident to me that an in-person workspace generates more creativity and innovation. It is just more difficult to have those types of discussions over a Zoom call.

The second school of thought on open offices is better management of real estate costs. In essence, can we put more bodies in the same space. Both construction and rent costs have a relatively steady trend of increasing year over year according to the Economic Research of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis ( This translates into management mindfully configuring their facilities to maximize their footprint – which is easier to do without walls and structures taking up valuable space. And, with the Work-From-Home trend that gained traction, thanks to COVID, employers look to utilize their facilities to maximize their return.

What Are Some Benefits to Open Plan Offices?

Engagement is the number one benefit to an open plan office space. Employees are employed for their work output. The output can be exponential if the employee is engaged in her work environment AND engaged with others in that environment. Collaboration, a part of engagement, brings greater insight and innovation when tackling work challenges and solving problems through face to face interactions. The physical barriers of closed office plans restricts this collaboration. Open office layouts, by their very nature, encourages discussion and engagement because employees can visibly see their co-workers.

Innovation rarely happens in a bubble. Whether within the same department or between departments, collaboration can deliver new ideas or out-of-the-box thinking. This type of diversity drives innovation in product, service and process – no matter what type of business you are running. The open office design encourages discussion which can deliver innovation.

Does an Open Office Layout Really Affect Productivity?

Open office designs, without the proper elements, can decrease productivity rather than enhance it. The challenge with open office designs is providing an environment that fosters both interaction and individual work. The biggest challenge is a space that is distracting which, in effect, reduces productivity. Studies show that for every workplace distraction it can take an average of 25 minutes to return to normal production levels. That means that one distraction per day consumes 5.2% of an 8-hour work day. The primary culprit of these distractions is the very collaboration that makes open spaces attractive to employers. Engaged conversations, if overheard by someone doing independent, heads-down work, cause distraction and reduce productivity.

Noise Level Distractions

The Acoustical Society of America defines Speech Privacy as the "Measure of the degree to which speech is both audible and can be understood by casual unintended listerner(s)." Why is this relevant? Speech in an open office design is the number one cause for distraction. When we speak normally the average decibel level (dB), which is a measurement of loudness, is 65 decibels. That loudness drops to around 46 dB when it travels 10-12 feet away, becoming indirect speech. If an unintended listener can understand 20% or more of that discussion then they will become distracted by it.

Video Calls are Almost Impossible

With the proliferation of video calls as technology enhances our ability to communicate so comes another challenge within the open office design. Although video can cause visual distraction, the bigger challenge is the one-sided conversation of the co-worker speaker through their headset. Technology supports the collaborative effort we need to be innovative but it also increases the number of discussion occurring throughout the open office, which leads to more distraction and decreased productivity.

Lack of Boundaries

Another challenge brought on by open office designs and not having private offices is the lack of overall boundaries. This is the tradeoff to the transparency that the open office intended when it conceptually was fostering engagement. Lack of boundaries can be stressful to employees and also lead to interruptions. If you can see your co-worker there is nothing stopping you from walking over to collaborate. Furthermore, the lack of boundaries reduces privacy both visually and audibly.

Speech Privacy is Non-Existent

Walls and partitions have come down, removing many private spaces and meeting rooms to open up the space. The office has seen a steady trend of glass, metal and reclaimed wood introduced as materials within the facility. Soft, absorptive materials such as fabric panels, carpet and even acoustical ceilings have disappeared. This all affects the acoustical environment. The very concepts of absorbing and blocking noise has been purposefully removed which ultimately translates into a lack of speech privacy.

How Can Lencore Sound Masking Optimize Your Office Acoustics and Improve Productivity? 

Sound masking is the introduction of noise into a space in order to make it more productive by reducing the amount of distractions. Lencore sound masking systems produce a comfortable noise, blending white and pink frequencies, into the space at a level slightly above indirect speech levels (around 47-48 decibels.) This solution minimizes the level of distraction caused by the collaborative discussion occurring 10-12 feet away, even in open workspaces. Sound masking reduces the percentage of the conversation that the unintended listener(s) can understand and allows them to focus on their independent work – making them more productive.

Furthermore, Lencore office sound masking solutions produce a comfortable environment. Because of the tailored frequencies within the sound, the environment "feels" more pleasant and easy to work within. Lencore has worked with thousands of companies to improve their open office concepts to cover, or mask, speech and deliver a more productive, comfortable environment. See our open office applications and case studies here.