The overwhelming scientific consensus is that open-plan offices reduce productivity because they're noisy and distracting, and they create extra stress. Ironically, open-plan offices actually reduce "collaboration," even though that's exactly what they were supposed to increase. That's why they're the dumbest management fad of all time.

A recent study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania examined ways that office designers might be able to ameliorate the negative effects of open-plan environments.

The study, conducted with workers at the Mayo Clinic, set a baseline by having them work in a standard open-plan office layout. The researchers then changed the acoustics, the lighting, and the temperature in different combinations, surveying the workers after a week in each combination.

Most of the discoveries were exactly what you'd expect: The workers hated it when the temperature was too low, and disliked it when they were forced to hear white noise or recordings of people talking. The study did reveal one surprising fact: Workers are happier, get more accomplished at work, and get more sleep at home, when they have an outside view.

This is an important discovery because open-plan offices can be designed so that nearly everyone has an outside view. That's not true of cubicles, of course, and it's also not true of most private-office designs, which tend to have at least some windowless rooms.

Of course, many open-plan designs put a ring of private or semi-private manager's offices around the "bullpen" where the peons work, in which case the managers get all the benefit of the view, while everyone else suffers.

But the good news is that tearing down the manager's offices and giving everyone a view is much less expensive than returning to private offices. They won't like it but (of course) everyone else will.

The study also suggests that open-plan offices can be made slightly less onerous by raising the temperature a few degrees. Most open-plan designs are optimized (for historical reasons) for a medium-height male wearing a business suit. Many women (and some men) find this much too cold and their productivity suffers.

Behavioral scientist and research consultant Anja Jamrozik (who was the lead on the study described above but currently works for the office rental firm Breather) explains:

Many people underestimate the link between physical comfort and productivity. If an individual is feeling uncomfortable (e.g. in a room she believes is too cold), her mind tends to focus on that discomfort, distracting from focused work and reducing productivity.

The limitation here, however, is that what's too cold for one person might be too warm for another in a shared environment. This inherent conflict is an even bigger problem in co-working spaces (which are like open-plan offices, only worse). As Jamrozik explains:

With dozens of strangers, it's impossible for the design elements that impact comfort -- such as light, temperature, and acoustics -- to fit the needs of every person working there. The result is a one-size-fits-none approach.

That being said, though, making the open-plan office a bit warmer, and hence more hospitable to women, would be one way that companies could retain more women. It's not as good as paying them fairly and treating them as equals, but still. Also, a warmer temperature could convince the clones to dump those stupid suits and ties.

If you really want your workers to be more productive, though, you should give them private offices with a shared common area, like Pixar or Apple's old offices. However, if you're stuck with an open plan, then you should give everyone a view and raise the temperature a few degrees.

It's not much, but at least it's something.

Published on: Nov 30, 2018
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