Your employees don’t love it. Here’s how to transition to a better, more productive office without breaking the bank.

An employee comes into their office and sits down at a workbench, just about shoulder-to-shoulder, with a coworker. After a cursory greeting, the two employees pop in some AirPods and start busily typing, using Slack or some other form of electronic communication.

Used in over 70% of companies, the open plan office has been painstakingly designed to encourage collaboration. Down with isolating, claustrophobic cubicles, up with easy communication and a looser, more dynamic feel.

The only problem: it didn’t really work. In fact, if you wanted to design an office that lowers productivity and sucks the life out of the employees, the open plan office would be ideal.

At least, that’s what the research is telling us.

When the Walls Came Down

A significant body of research has been amassed in the past few years that pokes some pretty big holes in the open office plan. Here’s what they found.

Less Communication

The original theory was that open offices would promote more communication between employees, more idea sharing, and more collaboration overall. But Harvard researchers found that when companies switched from cubicles to open offices, they saw an average of a 73% reduction in face-to-face communication and 67% more email.

Lower Productivity

Employees complain frequently about noise levels and depersonalization. That Harvard study mentioned above found 86 minutes of productivity lost—about 18%. There’s also some evidence to suggest that open office plans have a greater negative effect on women, who can feel they’re “on display” at all times. Talk about distracting!

More Absenteeism

One 2014 study found that, “…there was significant excess risk of employees taking sick leave in open plan offices.

More Turnover

Gallup’s massive 2017 report about the state of the American workplace reveals that 41% of workers would switch jobs to get access to a personal workspace.

Less Ownership

Here, at Corovan, we’ve seen a huge drop in the number of personal items included in employee moves. Not having a personal workspace means that employees just don’t feel connected to the office. When those 50 hours a week are spent in an environment that discourages human interaction, you can easily end up with disengaged, unproductive employees.

If less work, less collaboration, more absenteeism, and more employee turnover doesn’t drive a nail into the coffin of open offices, then perhaps nothing will. But many businesses have gotten the message that it’s time to move on. Loud and clear.

The only question is, “so now what do we do?”

What Comes After The Open Plan Office

Contrary to what you might think, transitioning away from an open plan office needn’t break the bank. And you don’t have to take a wrecking ball to your office. There are hybrid approaches that companies have taken to transition gradually. We’ll cover some of them here.

Phone Booths

These modern-day cubicles act as a temporary private office. A quiet space that employees can share. A number of studies have found that when someone feels that they are working in a private space, their job performance improves. The only downside is their sheer popularity. If you see employees monopolizing these booths for long periods of time, that may be an indication that their work requires a cubicle or a private office.

Office Dens

Similarly, more open booths—called “office dens”— are comfortable spaces that seat a few people (as opposed to phone booths that usually only accommodate one) to either hold quick meetings or get some quality deep work done in silence. Dens come in many formats, can be positioned just about anywhere, and are easy to move.


According to workplace efficiency experts at Leesman, there are 21 activities employees perform throughout the work day. So it makes sense to create spaces, or activity-based working zones, to cater to those activities. Someone who needs to focus might head to a sound-proof booth or den, while groups that need to engage in creative brainstorming will gather in spaces with couches and whiteboards. Identify the different activities and think about the kind of zone you would create to accommodate it. Some ideas include:

  • Small meeting rooms
  • Quiet rooms for one or two people
  • Work spaces in the employee canteen
  • Informal work areas or break out zones

Mix n’ Match

One company that has taken a hybrid approach was Ikea’s innovation lab. The architects designed a series of pods each design to fit a small group of desks belonging to one team. Each pod had a mix between an open desk cluster and a cubicle. Cube walls have acoustic panels designed to cut noise and boost visual privacy. Teams that need more quiet time can add more acoustic panels to create a “deep concentration cocoon” where they are more isolated and peaceful.

More Ways to Survive Open Plan Offices

Companies that acknowledge the issues with open offices and take steps to address them will see their employee engagement and retention improve. Here are a few ideas for how to do that:

  • Dialogue: Initiate a conversation between employees and execs about what’s working and what needs to change about the office design, work from home policies, and technology solutions.
  • Remote Work: Give your employees the tools they need to work from anywhere – and encourage it – and give them tools to block out distractions.
  • Quiet Time: Allow your employees the quiet time and devices they need for focused work. They’ll appreciate this more than ping pong and free almonds.
  • Balance: Encourage everyone to disconnect after work hours. Balance helps people focus while they’re there and makes them feel more relaxed.

The Bottom Line

Open office plans saved companies millions in their build-outs, but cost them much more in lost productivity, turnover, absenteeism, and morale. But because it’s infrastructure, turning it all around isn’t going to happen overnight. By taking a thoughtful, gradual approach to reconfiguring your workspace with some of these modular ideas, you can have a huge positive impact on your company’s output, employee morale and retention.