Strategy & Business Development

Open plan offices – heaven or hell?

Open plan offices cost companies billions!

This is the claim by a new Swedish study made by Helena Jahncke, environmental psychologist, from the university in Gävle, Sweden. Noisy open plan offices makes people tired and demotivated and it costs the Swedish companies more than two billion Swedish crowns a year. Quite a lot of companies have over the last couple of years put their trust in open plan offices that among other things are meant to promote cooperation. Besides it is cheaper, since more people are able to work on less space. But do the arguments stick, if the coworkers are getting more unproductive?

The downside is that people tend to talk across workspaces instead of seeking each other out. Phones are ringing and there might be an eternal buzz from printers and copy machines. According to a Swedish Ph.D. thesis we are far from being as good at working in noisy surroundings as we might think.

In this theme we focus on the positive and negative aspects of open plan offices and provide you with some good advice on how to handle the open plan offices best.


One of the first buildings with open plan offices is believed to be introduced in the USA as early as in 1904. The working spaces were built like in a classroom with row after row of tables and it was primarily secretaries and office assistants that were placed there.

In the 1960’s the open plan offices advanced in the USA based on the German “Burolandschaft”. Here work spaces were put together in small groups to provide an efficient workflow and all coworkers sat in the open landscape.

Noise, lack of privacy and concentration difficulty

Jan Pejtersen, senior researcher at The National Research Center of Work Environment in Denmark, is an expert in indoor climate and psychosocial circumstances for work, and he claims that there are to different approaches to open plan offices.

  • The positive approach is based on the assumption that open plan offices creates better social relations between the coworkers and therefor greater job satisfaction. This is because of the increased contact between the employees, which contributes to better cooperation and more social relations.

  • The negative approach is based on the assumption that people who work in open plan offices lack calm and therefor have a hard time forming social relations, which generates a lower level of job satisfaction. This is because people are afraid to interrupt and disturb each other and because they feel constantly observed.

According to Jan Pejtersen people in open plan offices typically complain about noise and lack of privacy. It is especially people’s talking and ringing phones that is annoying. Jan Pejtersen concludes, based on a study that he has been a part of, that there are more negative approaches to open plan offices that there are positive. The study is based on information from 2.300 office employees in 22 office buildings with different types of offices.

A poor and noisy indoor climate was a problem for the employees in open plan offices and they found it difficult to concentrate. The bigger the office landscapes, the bigger the problems were. Meanwhile there were hardly any differences in the employee’s experience of social support and feedback.

Talk is worse than background noise

Environmental psychologist Helena Jahncke have spent four scientific studies watching how noise affects coworkers in open plan offices. Among others things she let the study participants try typical office-work assignments with different levels of noise as setting.

In one test the participators had to use several different indexes for finding a residence that is built after 1963, costs more than 500.000 Swedish crowns and has an area of less than 63 square meters.

Exactly this type of assignments, where you have to remember variables and use them to search for the right information, was one of the hardest things to do for the participators in noisy surroundings.

We have seen that the achievement of the employees is reduced by two to ten percent, if they can pick what colleagues are saying in the background compared to a mere buss in the background, says Helena Jancke.

She has formed a simple equation to show the costs of noise for Swedish companies:

If we assume that a company has 110 employees, who averagely makes 25.000 Swedish crowns a month, and you add employer tax, the costs of a two percent reduction in efficiency will produce a loss of one million Swedish crowns per year. Approximately 230.000 Swedes are working in open plan offices and therefor the total loss for the Swedish business life can exceed 2,1 billion Swedish crowns.

Helena Jancke’s studies also show that people become more tired and less motivated in noisy surroundings. This can lead to increased absence of illness, she claims, and the costs from this is not included in the calculations.


If your work demands that you concentrate on learning and remembering new information, your efficiency can be reduced by ten percent, if there is a lot of talking surrounding you.

The physical boundaries must match the work-assignments

Eva Bjerrum, research- and innovational manager at the Alexandra Institute on Denmark, analyze and decorates open plan offices as a consultant for various companies. She points out that open plan offices are different from workplace to workplace and that it is difficult to clearly state whether those offices are good or bad for the company.

She would rather examine if the physical frame of the work assignment that is to be completed matches the character of the assignment. If it does, the open plan offices can have a real positive effect. More satisfaction on account of social relations, better cooperation and more sharing of knowledge are the primary effects, she claims. This is why it is important that the company introduce the open plan offices for the right reasons. That the coworkers are sitting together must provide benefits and it must not be a matter of this solution being easier to afford. In addition the workplace must provide the right boundaries. There must be more than one space/room, so that the coworkers are able to move their work process, if they are in need of peace and quiet or the ability to speak without any disturbance. And the workplace also need to make sure that the use of the open plan offices are discussed, so that the coworkers know the purpose and have some boundaries to relate to.

It seems that open plan offices can cause problems, but there is also great possibilities of solving them if the company takes the configuration into consideration and defines the proper use of the offices.

Good advice:

Think carefully before decorating your company with open plan offices – consider what assignments your coworkers are working on and consider the frame for which the assignments are best solved within.

If there are problems with noise in an open plan office, the company can do different things to handle the loss of efficiency, for instance by making sure that there are earplugs ready for employees that needs peace and quiet, or by making rooms where noise is forbidden.

Make sure to talk to the coworkers about how the open plan offices are used and what is proper behavior.