Why Your Open Office May Actually Be Killing Your Productivity

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Jan 15, 2014

You know what’s funny? Everyone who is anyone wants to work in a new, cool, ultra modern open office concept!

Organizations are spending billions creating these environments, and now studies are coming out and showing that productivity suffers in open office concepts, especially with younger workers and those that love to multi-task.

From The New Yorker:

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1950s, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve …

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than 100 studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some 38,000 workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.”

Why do we continue with the “open office?”

So, why do we continue to design our workplaces around this open office concept? Here’s what I think:

  1. Recruiting — Young talent likes to walk into the ‘cool’ office. Executives feel that this is a recruiting advantage and a marketing advantage when customers see a new, ultra-modern office environment.
  2. We think we want our office like we want our homes —Over the past two decades home builders have been ask to build open home plan designs. We then go to our office which is all cut up into small rooms and think “Hey, wouldn’t this be ‘nicer’ if this was all opened up?”
  3. Collaboration — Open office design was billed as the next best thing for creativity and collaboration. It was a theory. It was never really tested out. Someone had an idea — “You know what, if we break down these walls and have everyone in one big room, we’ll be more collaborative, we’ll be more creative.” Sounds good. Research is showing us that theory was just that — a theory.

A good notion for some kinds of work

I think for certain aspects the open concept still has merit.

Sales offices for years have been using the open concept with success, in a bullpen environment. Hear your peers next to you on the phone, and your competitive nature takes over, so you get on the phone. You can feel and hear a buzz in the air in a well run sales bullpen.

I tend to think I’m creative, but having others around me, talking, doesn’t help my creative process. I hear this from IT and Design professionals as well.

Have you been in a big IT shop or Design house? Most of the pros wear headphones, dim the lights, and try to create an environment that the open office concept isn’t giving them.

Be careful my friends. I love the look of many of the new offices, but if it’s hurting productivity and making my workers worse off, I’ll gladly give them back their offices!

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.