I’ve never liked open offices. Never. I remember the first time my CEO announced that we’d all be giving up our private offices. A part of me felt like I was about to lose my home. The next step? Goodbye cubicles. Now, we all sat together like one big, happy family, and any illusion that you could have a confidential conversation or crash on a deadline without interruption was shattered. I wonder sometimes if the open office trend was partially responsible for my decision to strike out on my own. Growing up, I’d never shared a bedroom with a sibling, and I couldn’t get used to sharing now.
My last open office experience was several years ago, and the trend hasn’t slowed down any. According to the International Facility Management Association in a piece in the Washington Post, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions. As with many trends, Silicon Valley has led this charge. Google, Yahoo, and eBay have had open offices for years, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even hired famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world for 3,000 of his engineers.
Open Offices Have Been Studied in Earnest
It’s not unusual for companies in more traditional companies to follow what the tech giants are doing, even if it doesn’t appear to make sense. But at some point, you hope reason will win out. The academic community and the media have certainly done their best. Lindsey Kaufman, the author of the Post piece, cited a 2013 study, which found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. About 50 percent of the survey respondents housed in open offices were perturbed by the lack of sound privacy, and more than 30 percent by the lack of visual privacy.
Do open offices have any benefits? Proponents often talk up how easy it is to interact with colleagues in any open office. This study showed the opposite to be true. Professionals with private offices were actually the least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue.
Fine, that’s just one study. But then, Maria Konnikova, author of the book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, published a sort of expose on the open office in the New Yorker. She cited the following results:
Open Office Literature Review by Matthew Davis
More than 100 independent studies showed that open offices have their advantages. Employees apparently feel more in tune with the organization, with a better grip on the company’s vision and values, when they work in an open office. Open offices were also believed to be more innovative. However, Davis’ review also illustrated that open offices caused productivity, attention, and job satisfaction declines. Employees experienced poorer concentration and motivation and greater stress than their counterparts in standard office environments.
Large Scale Open Office Research by David Craig
At global consultancy DEGW in Montreal, professor David Craig surveyed 38,000 professionals and found that more frequent interruptions had a negative impact on productivity. If the employee was more senior, this effect was worse. Craig also found that a sense of privacy and control increase individual performance, whereas open offices remove that control and lead to feelings of helplessness.
Danish Study on Open Offices and Health by Jan Pejtersen
In their study of 2,400 professionals, Pejtersen and his colleagues found that as the number of people working in a single room increased, the number of employees who took sick leave increased as well. Workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in totally open offices took an average of 62 percent more.
Cornell Noise Study by Evans and Johnson
According to Evans and Johnson’s research, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine – otherwise known as adrenaline. They also found that people in noisy office environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing greater physical discomfort. Finally, open office subjects also solved fewer create puzzles than those working in a quiet, closed environment.
What about standing desks? To find out more about the legitimacy of this trend, visit the QuickBase Fast Track blog.