The Unmet Promises of the Open-Plan Office

Global survey shows how open-plan layouts threaten employee wellness and productivity while failing to deliver on collaboration, growth and other critical business goals—and what companies can do to address these issues

A new study from Oxford Economics shows most companies are not getting full value from open-plan office layouts. Their key benefits, including increased collaboration and productivity, are going unrealized, and with low employee satisfaction rates, employee wellness is at risk too.

The research also shows that most companies are not doing enough to equip their workers with the private spaces and technology needed to focus while in the office. Conducted with Plantronics, a global provider of communications and collaboration tools and services, the study surveyed 500 senior executives and non-managerial employees across industries and functional areas. The 2018 study was conducted as a follow-up to a 2015 study of a similar population.

Among the key findings:

  • Open-plan offices are still not paying off. Most companies are not getting full value from their open-plan layouts. Collaboration tools are in short supply, with just 15% of respondent companies providing employees with the tools needed to work better together. Even fewer companies are providing equipment for remote working or mitigating noise and distraction. When collaboration happens in the office, many employees do not have access to quiet spaces—conference rooms or break rooms—needed to work in groups or get away from coworkers meeting near their desk.
  • Modern work puts wellness at risk. One in five employees say noise in their office negatively affects their job satisfaction; one in six say it is detrimental to their wellness. These problems persist after normal work hours. Nearly half of executives say they expect their reports to be available after-hours frequently or always, and two-thirds of employees cite pressure to work at all hours as detrimental to their well-being and productivity.
  • Meeting the needs of millennials is critical to business success. Younger workers are much less likely to say they find a noisy working environment energizing (9%, vs. 30% of older workers), and are more likely to believe their organization should address noise, distraction, and information overload with specific strategies and programs (89% vs. 75% of others). At the same time, this group offers promising potential to influence workplace-improvement strategies. It is already the largest cohort in the labor force, and is better acclimated in some ways to open-plan layouts than older workers, perhaps because an open plan is the only work environment most have ever known.
  • Few companies are taking action to resolve these issues, and senior leaders do not agree with employees about who should take responsibility for the problem. More than half (54%) of executives say employees have the tools they need to mitigate noise and distraction in the office, but far fewer employees agree. In fact, less than one-third of employees say they have the tools they need to mitigate office noise—down from 41% in 2015—and just 19% say they have these tools when working remotely.
  • Companies that fail to address these issues are leaving value on the table. Top-performing companies (respondents reporting stronger revenue growth and lower turnover than their peers) are more likely to provide workers with the tools to block out noise and give them the quiet space to focus. Also, they are more likely to say their senior management has successfully taken steps to address issues like information overload and pressure to always stay connected (79%, vs. 53% others).

“Persistent noise and distraction in the office, combined with constant connectivity at all hours, threaten productivity, satisfaction, and even health and happiness,” says Adrianna Gregory, Assistant Managing Editor at Oxford Economics. “Companies have to do more to protect their employees from the perils of modern work, and to make good on the unmet promises of the open-plan office.”

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For more information, contact Adrianna Gregory (, Edward Cone (, or Matthew Reynolds (


Topics: HR, Talent, and labour, Thought Leadership, Organisation and operations, Global surveys, Business and economic outlook, Workforce, Workplace, Open office