A new study on the merits (or lack thereof) of the “open” office plan has been making the rounds on blogs and social networks this month, eliciting many strong reactions. The study showed that a strong majority of workers in open plan offices were unhappy with the arrangement, complaining of distractions and longing for more privacy to complete their work or make the occasional personal call. After all, who wants to call and make a private doctor’s appointment or check in with a babysitter with 20 co-workers all within earshot?

According to a post on the study on Associations Now this week, the lack of privacy in these types of workspaces is the top complaint:

What turns them off? In particular, the lack of privacy. More than half of all occupants in open-plan cubicles (59 percent) and nearly half in un-partitioned cubicles (49 percent) complained about the lack of sound privacy. Between 20 to 40 percent of those surveyed said they were highly dissatisfied with their lack of visual privacy. ‘In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,’ the study noted.”

This isn’t to say that open workspaces aren’t without their benefits. Many companies are turning to these types of plans to foster more creativity and collaboration among workers. And indeed, there are cases where the results have been positive. Workers do report less email traffic, more face to face conversations about projects and in person brainstorming, all of which can lead to more creativity in the end product.

But the biggest question is, are the potential rewards worth the negative aspects of reaching them? Workers with no privacy will often find ways to create it, hence you end up with a large open room full of busy workers—but everyone is wearing headphones. Those needing some quiet time to get a presentation ready might retreat to an empty conference room. Requests to work from home might increase. And, most importantly, productivity may actually decrease.

Too many distractions are an often-cited explanation for dips in productivity. That fact has caused many a workplace to ban certain websites and aggressively monitor employees’ online activity—a move many in the new media space criticize as unnecessary and misguided. If anything, argue campaigns like Stop Blocking, social networking can actually increase productivity. Additionally, banning Facebook in the workplace won’t do much good if your employee still can’t focus at the task at hand due to the noisy nature of an open plan office environment.

office spaceSo, what’s the solution? Perhaps there is a fair way to compromise between employers hungry for increased team building and collaboration and employees hoping to be able to make a phone call without twenty colleagues chatting away behind them. Going back to the combination of private offices for managers and cubicles for the broader team solves one aspect of the issue, but what about the teamwork? Perhaps employers can solve this problem by combining the best of both worlds. Keep cubicles, but dedicate more space in the office as “brainstorming zones”, where teams can sit together to collaborate before separating to accomplish specific tasks. Encouraging more team building while maintaining private workspaces could be a fair compromise that keeps workers happy and increases productivity.

What office plan works best for your association? Have you tried open plans, and have workers responded positively? Sound off in the comments!