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Do Open Offices Kill Productivity?

Posted by Eric Friedman

open office

Originally designed in the 1950s by a team in Hamburg, Germany, the open office layout was meant to facilitate communication between workers and foster the flow of new ideas. Since then, it has become so popular that reportedly nearly 70 percent of all offices in the U.S. now have an open layout. Companies redesigned their closed office interiors to open up the space, in order to encourage teamwork and collaboration among employees.

However, recent studies have shown that open offices can lead to lower productivity levels, more distractions, and frustrated workers. A recent article in The New Yorker claims that “a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.” What’s worse, another recent study in the journal Environment & Behavior concluded that noise and cognitive performance are negatively correlated, which means that the noise and distractions prevalent in open offices are diminishing worker performance.

The decrease in productivity caused by open office layouts can be attributed to several different factors, including:

  • Interruptions. Open offices were created to increase communication between workers, but when is increased communication too much communication? In an open set-up, you get more co-workers interrupting one another, and it’s not always work-related.
  • Distractions. People popping their heads up to chat with co-workers is not the only factor that interrupts productive work. They may be talking to someone else, either in the cubicle next to them or on the phone, or they may be watching a funny cat video on YouTube (for the 16th time). It could be the mail delivery person, walking around saying hi to everyone, or someone coming back from lunch commenting on the new corner café. All of this can be distracting and detrimental to the focus needed to be productive.
  • Noise. Maybe that cat on the YouTube video is meowing a tad too loud, or the person in the cubicle next to you is on an important business call with someone riding on a train… inside a tunnel… with bad cell reception. Loud sounds and background noises break our concentration and make it harder to finish tasks.
  • Lack of privacy. Being in an open office means anyone near you can see and hear whatever you do. Sometimes privacy is necessary, like when you’re having a tough conversation with someone. And some people are shy—they would do great in a more private setting, but because they’re out in the open, they’re nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing, so they and end up just coasting along.
  • Germs. It may seem like a stretch, but the spread of germs is also a factor to consider when thinking about how open offices affect productivity, especially since open workplaces reported 62 percent more sick days on average than closed office layouts.

With so many cons stacked against it, it’s hard to think there could be benefits to having an open office layout. Yet there are some pros to this type of setup. Take its originally intended purpose—open offices can make employees feel symbolically closer to the company’s mission and goals. They’re also more likely to feel part of a team, which can be conducive to more productive teamwork.

Open office designs, especially in recent years, give off a “cool” and laid-back feel. They’ve been popularized by TV shows and movies where trendy people toting lattes and messenger bags work in big loft-like offices, floating among steel desks and exposed brick walls. As such, the open office tends to attract younger workers, a plus if you consider this for your recruiting purposes as a way to attract bright, young talent.

Its modern and dynamic feel can also be considered a marketing asset. When customers or clients step into a new, open office, they get a sense that the company is with the times, innovative, and cutting-edge. All of the hustle and bustle of workers at their desks—on the phone, talking with each other, typing on their computers—helps to give an air of productivity.

All of this being said, some jobs are certainly better-suited for open spaces than others. For instance, companies that conduct sales benefit from the open office or “bullpen” environment. Hearing their peers on the phone making sales can serve to challenge workers to keep up or surpass them. Competitiveness takes over, and in this scenario that’s a very good thing.

Jobs in the news and the PR industry can also benefit from an open setup. A newsroom is open to encourage workers to share stories with one another. In the world of the Internet and instant news, even taking the time to open your office door can slow you down too much.

Considering the recent studies linking noise to decreased performance, yet valuing the promise of the open office setup, it may be time for you to reexamine your space and determine the ideal layout that would best serve both your company’s and your employees’ needs.

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About Eric Friedman

Author

Eric Friedman is the founder and CEO of eSkill Corporation, a leading provider of Web-based skills testing for pre-employment and training. With academic degrees in Psychology and Business, and experience with both mature and expansion-stage company growth, Eric has focused on how best to hire and motivate team members to be the best they can be for their companies.

3 COMMENTS Join the discussion
  • Lilly February, 28, 2014

    I think it all depends on a personality – some people feel uncomfortable in an open environment and seek for more privacy, whilst others might feel oppressed in a standard office and more than comfortable in an open one. My subjective point of view is that a crowded and noisy place can’t compete in productivity with private and calm one.

  • Matthew Jones March, 02, 2014

    I’ve never met anybody who liked to work in the place with zero privacy. No matter what they say about humans being social animals, on practice it appears that productivity tends to go down in the open offices, so it’s hard to escape the conclusion that open offices are universally hated.

  • Elma March, 03, 2014

    Employers prefer open offices because of two simple reasons – open offices require less place, so rent cost may be lower and they also think that open offices stimulate creativity. But the negative consequences outweigh all the pluses. Open offices usually jeopardize the company’s productivity and workforce satisfaction, therefore I think that cost reduction is not a worthwhile driver if it sacrifices productivity.

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Guest March, 03, 2014