Your Open Office is Killing Your Productivity

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 concepts, especially with younger workers and those that love to multitask. From the New Yorker:

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, 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 a hundred 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 thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

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 2 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.

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, 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 where headphones, dim the lights, try and create an environment that the open 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 – I’ll gladly give them back their offices!

4 thoughts on “Your Open Office is Killing Your Productivity

  1. Nice to read the thorough analysis but one way to look it is, The office set up might be based on the kind of culture an organization is trying to build which directs them to hire like-minded people and the people who fits into that culture. Luckily there is no dearth of jobs around for the talent and they are open to move if the particular setup doesn’t work for them or if they feel that they are being less productive.

  2. Coming from an open-office concept, I agree with the elevated distraction level. However, felt that the camaraderie and teamwork went up once we traded in the cubes/offices. I feel the ball lies in the employee’s court on this one. What can they do to combat distraction? My go-to was headphones. Even if I wasn’t listening to anything. I put them in and went to my own little bubble. Usually open-concept offices have areas set aside for “quiet time.” They’re also owned by more progressive leaders who may allow a work from home option when necessary, the employee just needs to speak up and ask… Employees who feel distracted need to switch it up and figure out what works for them vs. using the office design as a crutch.

  3. Having worked in an open office, I can attest that it kills your productivity and attention span. It was nice for communication and building a sense of team, but try developing a course or writing an intensive document surrounded by noise (phone calls, conversations…desk drumming). Noise cancelling headphones became a requirement, which sort of defeated the purpose of the open environment.

    It was even more difficult in terms of having important conversations with your boss or your employees. You’d always have to go find an open meeting room (which can be tough since everyone is doing the same thing).

    I like the idea of having a communal space for employees to gather, brainstorm, or just chat about their work. THAT can be your ultra-cool, modern looking space. But give people a place to be quiet, get some work done, and just stay away from people for awhile.

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