In November of 2018, Harvard University asked 456 employees in 20 regional office locations of an architectural firm how well they like their own open-plan offices. The researchers' reasoning was that they'd get more useful data, because architects are "sensitive to the impacts of space by the nature of their work."

In other words, since architects design and promote open-plan offices, the researchers decided to find out how architects like taking a dose of their own medicine.

Short answer: Not so much.

Long answer: According to the Harvard study, when compared with employees working in private offices, employees working in open-plan offices reported:

  • Significantly more unfavorable working conditions in terms of acoustical privacy, workplace effectiveness, attractiveness, and satisfaction.
  • Significantly to be less likely to agree with the statement that the physical space where they worked embodied the values of the organization they worked for.
  • Significantly lower work engagement and job satisfaction, but higher difficulty with concentration. The total effect on professional relationships (i.e., internal ties) was also found to be negative.

Interestingly, the study showed a small but noticeable increase in job performance with open plan as opposed to private office. However, this result was apparently so anomalous that the researchers specifically called for future studies to "look into the validation of the positive effect."

Possibly because of this unexpected but measurable positive effect, the study's authors conclude their report with a recommendation that:

Newer office designs should offer a mix of open-plan office--to meet needs for interactions, communications, teamwork, and knowledge sharing--and private spaces to protect against acoustical distractions, visual distractions, and crowding, and to enable the still-needed individual, headsdown work.

In other words, what's likely to create the best of both worlds are private offices arranged around a hub of common area that's used primarily for socializing.

It need hardly be said that's not really open plan at all, nor is the cubicle farm that's often raised as a straw-man alternative to open plan. Instead, it's the exact design that Steve Jobs implemented at Apple's original campus and at Pixar, arguably the two most innovative and productive office environments of all time.

So, yeah, Steve was right. As usual.

Published on: Jan 4, 2019
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