Why your blood pressure is high: Open-office floor plans gaining popularity

TBWA\Chiat\Day took the open office concept to the extreme for their Los Angeles digs, buying an old warehouse and converting it to workspace in 1998.
TBWA\Chiat\Day took the open office concept to the extreme for their Los Angeles digs, buying an old warehouse and converting it to workspace in 1998.TBWA\Chiat\Day / Today

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By Michelle V. Rafter, NBC News contributor

 Love them or hate them, open-plan offices are the new normal in the workplace.

Despite research showing that non-traditional, open office layouts can lower employee productivity and boost stress, companies show no signs of switching away from the modern layouts, which are long on collaboration space and short on private work areas.

For more than a decade, companies have been on a slow march away from traditional floor plans composed of private offices and cubicle “farms” of individual modules with six-foot-high wall panels.

They’re transforming offices into environments with giant communal workrooms and low- or no-walled pods, lounge areas with cushy sofas and whiteboards for group meetings, and single-person privacy booths. By 2015, more than three-quarters of U.S. companies expect to use open, collaborative workspaces with fewer offices, according to Teknion Corp.’s Workplace of the Future survey, published late last year.

But open-plan offices cause conflict, high blood pressure and increased turnover, according to a 2008 Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management report cited in Scientific American. A 2007 study from the Center for the Built Environment found that 60 percent of employees who sit in cubicles think acoustics interfere with their ability to work. Office workers are more bugged by sound privacy -- or lack of it -- than noise levels, according to the study.

The switch to such floor plans in offices is partly a generational thing. Younger workers, especially in their 20s and 30s, like being social and working in groups, and companies are doing what they can to attract them. That includes revamping office layouts to be more flexible and let in more natural light -- a perk for sustainable-minded Millennials, says Chris Corrado, president of Environments, a 30-year-old office furnishings supplier in Portland, Ore. “Gen Xers and Yers, they have a totally different view of life,” Corrado says. “They have their phones and laptops and iPads. They don’t need to be tethered to a desk to get work done.”

It’s also a cost thing. Workstations for open-plan offices run 6’x6’ with 50” high walls instead of 8’x8’ or 8’x10’ with 72” walls, and as a result, cost up to 10 percent less, Corrado says. But what companies save buying smaller cubicles, and fewer of them, they spend building more space for conferences or other collaboration, he says.

Companies including Intel and Microsoft have gone so far as to adopt workstations that are shared by multiple individuals, a practice known as “hoteling” or “hotdesking.” In some of these shared workspaces, employees keep personal belongings in lockers or rolling file cabinets that can be wheeled into storage when they’re not being used.

TBWA\Chiat\Day’s Los Angeles outpost switched to an open layout when the advertising agency bought an old warehouse and converted it to an office in 1998. The two-story space features 27-foot tents that separate brand teams, an indoor park, basketball court used for all-staff meetings, and lunch counter made partly of surfboards. When someone needs time alone, they can retreat to rooms tucked away behind scrims.

The high-concept interior isn’t just about image. It also helps foster creativity, says Patrick O’Neill, executive creative director at the agency’s Los Angeles office. “It’s a collaborative business so it behooves us to have an open plan,” he says.

Not only that, having a more flexible office space makes it easy to reconfigure workgroups quickly, an advantage when dealing with clients whose own business plans can change on a dime. “We’re constantly rethinking how our teams are built. The space is valuable for that because it’s open and malleable,” O’Neill says.

But not everyone’s happier or better off because of how office spaces are changing.

Susan Cain, author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking", argues that privacy makes people more productive and creative, while collaboration leads to groupthink. “Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in,” Cain wrote in the New York Times.

If companies are smart, they’ll realize introverts and other employees aren’t comfortable working in the open and take that into account when designing work spaces, says Cathy Sexton, a St. Louis, Mo., productivity strategist.

For starters, companies can orient workspaces so individuals face inside, away from foot traffic, because “just having someone walk by can be a distraction,” she says.

Sexton encourages people to wear headphones to listen to music or white noise if it cuts down on distractions. She recommends using telephone headsets to reduce noise from conversations that might distract coworkers. And she suggests designating specific areas for collaboration or conversations, and even instituting quiet times.

Ultimately, open-plan offices aren’t going away, so employees have to adapt. Says Sexton: “If everyone recognizes what everyone needs, it becomes more acceptable.”

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