Perhaps the productivity benefits of an open-office design are not what they're cracked up to be. In a recent New Yorker article, writer Maria Konnikova revealed some of the flaws of open-office designs.
Damaging to Productivity and Creative Thinking
Organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than 100 studies about office environments. His conclusion? "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," writes Konnikova.
One reason for this was that the open setting permitted more work-interruptions by colleagues. These interruptions, obviously, were harmful to productivity.
Nothing But a Germ Thing
A recent study of more than 2,400 employees in Denmark found that as the number of people working in a single room increased, the number of employees who took sick leave increased at a comparable pace.
"Workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of 62 percent more," she writes.
Bringing The Noise
Open offices are noisier than closed ones, because of all the social activity they encourage. There's evidence that the increased office noise "impairs workers' ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic," notes Konnikova, citing the research of psychologist Nick Perham.
Moreover, tests show that open-office noise can increase our levels of adrenaline--leading to more "fight-or-flight" responses in work settings, which are seldom helpful.
Perhaps more damaging to long-term health is that workers sitting in public are less likely to make ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, according to Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson. In the short-term, that leads to strain. Over time, it leads to injury.
When Open Offices Can Work
The best solution may be an office that provides a mixture of open and closed spaces. At Allsteel, the 101-year-old office-furniture-design company that invented the lateral file in 1967, there's a strong belief that every office should contain six types of work spaces, three of which are "open," and three of which are "closed." They are:
1. The Open "I"--a place where you work alone, but people can see you working.
2. The Open "We"--a place where one team can work, and people can see them working.
3. The Open "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, and people can see them working.
4. The Closed "I"--a place where you work alone, in private.
5. The Closed "We"--a place where one team can work privately.
6. The Closed "Shared"--a place where many teams can potentially work together, yet still have privacy from other people in the office.
By mixing open and closed spaces, offices can glean the benefits of open designs that Konnikova mentions--a symbolic sense of mission, a laid-back feeling of innovative enterprise--without the noisy and potentially unhealthy drawbacks.