Open-plan workspaces have been quite fashionable in recent years. And yet the debate continues: Do they really make people happier and more productive, or is it just a dumb management fad that will eventually die off? 

While some experts suggest a range of floor plans--where people choose where and how they get their jobs done--as the ideal compromise, can you really afford to compromise on productivity when your bottom line is at stake?

I decided to get some perspective from an expert, to get the bottom line of whether open plans actually work, and what concrete steps every business can take to make their employees happier and more productive.

Dr. Anja Jamrozik, director of research at Breather, has made it her mission to make office design better and applies cognitive and behavioral-science research to solve challenging practical problems. She holds a PhD in cognitive psychology with a postdoc in neuroscience.

Here's the result of our conversation (edited for length).

Schwantes: What is behavioral science saying employees now need, in terms of office design, in order to perform better?

Dr. Jamrozik: The two tasks people spend the most time at work doing are: focused work and small meetings. Focused work is best done in a quiet space, while small meetings often call for private, collaboration-friendly spaces. Open offices are full of distractions that hinder both of these types of work, with nosy neighbors infringing on privacy. What many people don't understand is that any intelligible conversation -- whether a shout or a whisper -- is equally disruptive to cognitive performance. According to recent research, overhearing half of a conversation, such as one side of a phone conversation, is even worse than overhearing a live conversation between two people.

What about less intrusive "co-working" spaces--is this a happy medium? 

Dr. Jamrozik: Co-working brings together a large number of people with different goals and tasks, which means people trying to engage in focused work or small meetings are often easily pulled off track. Counterintuitively, the communal nature of open offices, like those in co-working, results in less face-to-face collaboration. In effect, studies have found that people shift to email and instant messaging to preserve privacy.

How does the physical environment of co-working spaces impact employee productivity? 

Dr. Jamrozik: In co-working spaces with dozens of strangers, or with open-office concepts, 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. There is a strong link between physical comfort and productivity. If an individual is feeling uncomfortable, like working in a room she believes is too cold, her mind tends to focus on that discomfort, distracting from focused work and reducing productivity. Almost anything that can be changed in a co-working space, from humidity to acoustics, will impact how an individual experiences that room and the quality of the work they do as a result.

If you're stuck in a co-working office with limited options, what do you suggest workers do?

Dr. Jamrozik: Find ways to personalize your space to increase your physical comfort and boost your productivity. If you tend to run cold, consider investing in a blanket or heated pillow for your chair. If you're often too warm, use a small personal fan on your desk to keep you cool without bugging your neighbor.

How do you set good boundaries with your peers in a co-working space?

Dr. Jamrozik: If your neighbors like to drop by your desk to chat, try using some sort of visual signal, like color-coded sticky notes or large headphones at your desk to show visitors when you're doing focused work and don't want to be disturbed. Work out a set of rules for phone calls and encourage them to take calls outside. Consider using noise-canceling headphones to block out conversations happening around you. You can play soft sounds like nature elements, which research has shown can contribute to improved attention and mental calm.