Open-plan offices will go down in business history as the dumbest and most expensive management fad of all time. OPOs were intended to increase collaboration but do the opposite. They were intended to save money on office rental, but productivity losses due to noise, distraction, and increased illness more than offset any cost savings.
That being said, there is one thing that OPOs do better than private offices, cubicles, or even work-from-home. When well-implemented with large windows on all outside walls, OPOs provide natural lighting to everyone in the work area. OPOs democratize one of the major benefits of the proverbial corner office: a room with a view.
A recent article in Architectural Digest cited extensive research that found that "daylit environments increase occupant productivity and comfort, and provide the mental and visual stimulation necessary to regulate human circadian rhythms." This can help people stay awake and alert during daylight work hours and also to sleep better in the evenings.
It should be noted, though, that people whose natural rhythms are on the ends of the bell curve--night owls and early birds--may not be able to sync themselves to a standard workday, even with exposure to natural light. Still, exposure to natural sunlight can't hurt and may help pull them closer to the norm.
Natural lighting can also greatly reduce energy consumption. When combined with daylight sensors, natural lighting can reduce up to 60 percent of the energy used for office lighting.
This savings, however, is not a free ride, because natural lighting can also increase the amount of air conditioning required to bring the office temperature to a reasonable level. It can also create "hot spots" where it's uncomfortable to work both because of the light-generated heat and the glare--a significant issue with most computer screens.
Still, natural lighting is nothing to be sneezed at. Indeed, it's probably one reason that high tech firms in New York City and other metropolitan areas seek out loft spaces in old industrial buildings, which were optimized for natural light, especially before the invention of reliable electrical lighting.
Unfortunately, whatever benefits might accrue from natural lighting are more than offset by the many disadvantages of open-plan designs. More important, the better alternative to open plan--the Pixar "hub and spoke" design--also provides natural light while, with simple window blinds, giving workers control over the lighting in their own work areas.
So, yeah, open-plan offices do maximize natural light. But they're still a dumb idea.