Despite being the most common working environment, open plan offices may actually be detrimental to employee health, wellbeing and productivity, according to recent Canada Life Group Insurance research.

When asked to rank how easy it is to be healthy and productive in their working environment, employees in open plan offices gave an average score of 6.1 and 6.5 out of ten respectively. In comparison, employees who work mostly from home gave scores of 8.1 for health and 7.7 for productivity.

While employees who work from home only took an average of 1.8 sick days last year, workers in open plan offices took over 70% more (3.1 days). Those working in an open plan office are also almost six times more likely than home workers to believe their working environment promotes stress (28% vs 5%), with previous research demonstrating workplace stress can significantly increase absence levels.

Health and wellbeing hampered by office environment

Perhaps unsurprisingly given the proximity of other colleagues, staff who work in open plan offices are some of the most likely to say that illness spreads quickly in their organisation (34%), second only to teachers in classroom environments (47%). Employees who work from home are virtually unaffected by this problem: only 1% agreed illness spreads quickly where they work.

Home workers are most likely to agree that their working environment promotes stress-free and calm conditions (52%), with those in a private office (19%) coming a distant second. In contrast, only 12% of those in open plan offices agree with this, with over a quarter (28%) saying that it actively creates a stressful working environment versus 5% of home workers.

Despite the challenges office lifestyles present, the benefits in terms of easy communication and social integration are strong enough for employers to continue to develop the model. For example, 29% of employees in open plan offices agreed their working environment allowed for easy communication between colleagues, followed by 24% in private offices and 20% in cubicle style offices. In contrast, only 5% who work from home agree.

Paul Avis, Marketing Director of Canada Life Group, comments: “I have always worked for employers who appreciate that an increased level of productivity can be gained through a flexible approach to home working. While often missing out on the social aspects and colleague engagement, having clear, focused and uninterrupted time is priceless. I have found that a combination of home and office working is the best outcome for me, but note that employers should always be mindful of remote workers. At Canada Life we have field-based Sales Teams and home-based Claims Management Consultants and Rehabilitation Consultants; we certainly don’t want them to feel isolated or under-valued purely because they do not come in to the office every day.

“Despite the advent of technological advances such as faster broadband, employers have not proactively embraced the opportunity to change working patterns. With increasing commute times for many, trusting employees to work from home can increase morale and reduce stress levels whilst giving employees more time in their day. For those of us who are truly engaged with the workplace, the recycling of commuting time into work time provides an immediate gain in productivity, as well as improved health and wellbeing.”