If you're looking for reasons to dislike open-plan offices, you won't have to search long. Stories of employees hiding in broom closets to avoid distractions abound, and there are plenty of studies testifying that employees generally hate them. Some experts even suggest open-plan offices make people physically sick.

But still the trend toward open workspaces continues. Can anything possibly persuade bosses to stop the madness? If anything could finally get through to bottom-line-minded leaders, it just might be the conclusions of a new survey.

Your best people hate your open-plan office the most.

The poll is the work of William Belk, a consultant who helps employers keep their highest-performing employees happy. And while his new anonymous survey of more than 1,000 superstar employees isn't completely scientific, it should still make leaders sit up and take notice.

Here's the headline takeaway from Belk's Hacker Noon write-up of the results: "58 percent of HPEs [high-performance employees] need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54 percent of HPEs find their office environment 'too distracting.' "

In short, Belk's research shows that your best employees loathe your noisy office the most. And his research and experience also suggest that the open environment is preventing them from doing the awesome work you hired them to produce.

But what about innovation?

Of course, managers aren't insane. They have a rational justification for tearing down all the walls (besides the usually unstated rationale of real estate cost savings). Open-plan offices, they say, encourage serendipitous encounters that lead to unexpected creative ideas. Management orthodoxy insists that openness is great for innovation.

Maybe sometimes, replies Belk. An engineer and an operations person could bump into each other and experience a light bulb moment that results in a huge win for the company. But that's not what the bulk of innovation work looks like. Once they have that great idea, your high performers have to actually execute it. And when it comes to the 99 percent perspiration part of the creative process, walls come in really, really handy.

"The average day of the HPE is spent solving really hard problems related to an innovative product, idea or company direction. This means remaining focused for long hours in support of existing and future creatives/hardware/software/designs/narratives. HPEs are usually cranking on a days-long task, following through on a contract they made with peers or executives. HPEs overwhelmingly need quiet and calm space in order to efficiently complete their daily work," Belk insists.

Their more junior colleagues who spend most of their hours doing less demanding (also often less interesting) routine work might enjoy the hubbub of an open-plan environment -- "Employees who have little need for trade craft and mastery love distracting and social environments because they are fun and entertaining," he says -- but for the bedrock talent on your team, the chaos kills concentration, and for the type of work they do, that destroys productivity.

So get your superstars offices already. (Or, alternatively, give them the flexibility to work from home more often.)

Do you agree that open-plan environments are usually worst for a company's highest-performing employees?

Published on: Mar 23, 2017
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