Open-plan Offices vs. Telecommuting: Which Work Environment is Better?

Open-plan Offices vs. Telecommuting: Which Work Environment is Better?

In the past few years, a growing number of organizations have adopted open-plan offices — offices with fewer spatial boundaries such as cubicles, walls, and doors. At the same time, more and more companies allow workers to telecommute some or all of the time. These two forms of work are, in effect, polar opposites. One involves employees working in a large, communal space; the other involves employees working in a home office — more often than not, alone. So the question arises: Which work environment is better?

Open-plan offices
The reasoning behind open-plan offices was to encourage more face-to-face communication and collaboration between workers and as a result, enhance collective intelligence. However, a recent Harvard study found that this type of workspace triggered a natural reaction to withdraw from colleagues. As a result, face-to-face interactions declined by 73 percent, electronic communications increased, and employees found it more challenging to concentrate. In fact, one of the companies that participated in the study reported that productivity had declined. 

However, the authors concluded that further research was necessary to examine whether open-space offices in general adversely impact collective intelligence and productivity.

In contrast, a two-year Stanford study showed that when employees were allowed to work from home, their performance increased by 13 percent. There were two reasons for this. First, employees enjoyed fewer interruptions and were consequently able to concentrate better. Second, without issues such as long commutes, leaving work early, or taking long breaks, they actually completed their full shift. The study also found that attrition dropped by 50 percent among telecommuting employees.

However, despite these benefits, many telecommuters report feeling isolated, which can have a negative effect on their wellness and performance in the long term. 

What this means for managers
Regardless of your company’s policy regarding where work takes place, it’s advisable to invest in additional efforts to promote communication and collaboration, as well as team cohesiveness. That way, if you have an open plan office, you can foster more interactions that spark creativity and contribute to innovation, and if you manage remote workers, you can help reduce isolation and promote worker wellbeing. And ultimately, this will contribute to your team’s success, your company’s bottom line, and your own accomplishments.