Open Offices? They May Actually Be Damaging Employee Productivity

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Nov 19, 2014

Compensation and benefits covers a lot of ground. Can we consider it to also, well, literally cover ground?

I’m asking this after a recent dinner with close friends.

Jane works for a very large, multi-national high technology company. She’s been with this company more than two decades as a very highly educated and skilled engineering professional. During that time, she’s changed desk locations, offices, even states (having moved between coasts of the United States).

But it’s her latest move that’s causing her the most problems.

Is this what an open office means?

In a cost savings measure, her company is compressing square footage per employee (and keep in mind that this calculation includes shared spaces such as hallways, bathrooms, cafeterias, etc.) from 370 square feet per employee to just a bit more than 100 square feet per employee.

What does that mean in practical terms? “It means that open office space” rules.

What does that look like in Jane’s day-to-day work life?

  • She has an allotted space at a very long communal table-like desk with her work station and very short dividers (we can’t call them “walls”).
  • At the end of every work day, she must pack up her personal items (folders, information, pens, notebooks, mouse, keyboard – all the accoutrements of work) and put them into a locker.
  • The next day, she must first unpack her locker to begin work.
  • She wears noise-cancelling headphones nearly all the time in order to concentrate on her work.
  • She hesitates to ask nearby colleagues any pertinent questions out of fear of disturbing other colleagues.
  • Jane has security clearance and works on sensitive files all the time. She does have a privacy screen she puts over her monitor every day, but anyone directly behind her (including anyone sitting at similar long tables in seats behind her) can see her screen quite clearly.

Less collaboration – and more meetings at Starbucks

Advocates of open offices state the primary benefit is fostering an atmosphere of innovation and collaboration with free-flowing conversations and impromptu meetings that are not possible without walls. The reality is quite different.

People are actually less collaborative out of fear of disturbing colleagues. If conference room space is unavailable (which is more common as people seek private meetings space more often now), many even leave the office to find a more private place to meet to discuss projects.

Perhaps most concerning, this can mean the local Starbucks is now the venue for private business discussions.

The challenges of the open office are more than the physical. It can negatively impact the bottom line in terms of falling productivity and job performance. This New Yorker article references one study on this:

In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, co-workers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.”

Millennials may be impacted the most

And before we say open offices are the way of the future as Millennials progress in their careers, consider this last point from The New Yorker article:

Though multitasking Millennials seem to be more open to distraction as a workplace norm, the wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation: they enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run.”

If you’re evaluating compensation and benefits for your employees, consider the workspace you give them to be a key component of that strategy.

Do you prefer an open office or working with a few walls to minimize distractions?

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.