April 27, 2020

696 words 4 mins read

Open Offices Covid Casualty

Open Offices Covid Casualty

Coronavirus could wipe out the open office floor plan as quickly and decisively as it wiped out many corporate bottom lines.

Companies that move to an open office cite two benefits for the design:

  • Cost savings by cramming more people into a given amount of space.

  • Increased innovation, driven by collaboration.

But multiple studies show that both assumptions are wrong. Now, Coronavirus has proven that open offices represent a significant public health threat, as well.

Companies ignored the evidence that open offices cost more and reduce productivity, but they will have a much harder time justifying the floor plan after the Coronavirus pandemic destroys lives and businesses.

Open Offices Reduce Innovation, Collaboration, and Productivity

In a study, Harvard researchers found that shifting to an open office environment reduced face-to-face interactions by 72 percent and increased email volumes by 69 percent. (Source)

This shift from face-to-face communications to digital may have caused the observed reduction in company productivity. From the Royal Society:

One indication of the meaningfulness of this shift in behaviour was its effect on performance. In an internal and confidential management review, OpenCo1 executives reported to us qualitatively that productivity…had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries.

A second study that furthered the research of the first study found that open offices reduced cross-collaboration. Researchers believe the loss of privacy makes workers more tribal, interacting with a smaller group of trusted allies and shunning strangers from outside their workgroups.

So, open offices reduce collaboration, innovation, and productivity. That should be enough to drive chief financial officers to invest in private offices. But, so far, money has not been incentive enough to drive a change in office design. Perhaps health dangers will.

Open Offices Increase Spread of Diseases and the Number of Sick Days

If the bottom line failed to motivate companies to eliminate open offices, perhaps the health and safety of its employees will.

Another way open offices destroy productivity is by increasing the number of sick days. In the time of COVID-19, this risk might finally upend office architecture.

A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study in 2011 found that shared and open offices increased sick days dramatically. Open office spaces produce 62 percent more sick days compared to private spaces. For a company with a closed floor plan and 500 employees who use 2 sick days a year, a move to an open office will cost the company 620 days of productivity.

sick day chart

How might all of this affect businesses after Coronavirus?

Open Offices Could Feel Hostile and Threatening

When people begin returning to work after the lockdown, that open office we walk into may look newly threatening and hostile. Architects may abandon the design altogether out of a commitment to public health and safety. Some designers might even refuse to draw up plans for open offices. And job candidates might reject jobs that involve massively shared workspaces.

If money could not drive companies to abandon the open office, perhaps the psychological damage of Coronavirus will. Suddenly, the cost of private offices will pale in comparison to the cost of an economic collapse caused by an infectious disease.

What About After We Conquer Coronavirus? Some might be thinking, “why should we remodel our offices for a virus that will be conquered in a year?” That’s a reasonable question, but the two-fold answer is already given.

Open offices reduce innovation, collaboration, and productivity. Unless a company differentiates with procrastination and sloth, every business should want a physical environment that maximizes good outcomes.

Open offices increase sickness. Does any company want its people to get sick more often? Look, Coronavirus might be conquered in a year, but infectious disease, including colds, influenza, whooping cough, and more will continue to spread by close physical proximity. Open Offices provide no vertical barriers that stop the spread of water droplets (the effluence from coughs and sneezes). Walled offices do.

In researching this article, I could find not a single scientific study that found open offices superior to walled, individual workplaces. Not one. Even without the forcing function of Coronavirus, businesses have a strong financial incentive to return to individual offices. Coronavirus just made the incentive obvious to all.