24 September 2017
Apple’s new office layout has been described as “programmer hell”. The research backs up this sentiment.
I used to think my frustration with open office plans meant that something was wrong with me.
Everyone seemed so bought into the hype about how open layouts create transparency and collaboration. Reducing physical barriers felt so symbolic and positive. No one wanted to argue against these ideals. I, too, wanted transparency and collaboration.
So when I’d have a hard time focusing, I’d tell myself that I just had to try harder. When a coworker would tell me how great it is to be able to randomly tap anyone on the shoulder, I’d nod quietly and retreat to my headphones. I convinced myself that wanting to be able to focus on my work somehow made me less collaborative.
I thought that I needed to embrace the constant interruptions as a source of creativity.
But just because the goals are noble doesn’t mean that open office plans are the correct solution. Open layouts are objectively making us less happy, less productive, and more sick.
In fact, overwhelming evidence points to open offices being detrimental on every account. And while younger workers are often the most vocally supportive of open office environments, studies have shown that workers of all ages are just as negatively impacted.
The longstanding belief that open offices foster better informal interactions and collaboration doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Rather, studies show that open layouts result in shorter and lower quality discussions than in closed layouts. This is in addition to the detrimental effect of constant distraction.
It seems that physical openness does not equal cultural openness.
All in all, there just isn’t any strong evidence to support the oft-touted benefits of open offices. When you feel overstimulated, unfocused, or frustrated at work, it’s important to remember that it’s not a personal failing on your part.
In an effort to get us all talking about the actual evidence, below is a summary of 12 major pieces of research about open office plans.
The research will show that:
I hope this research allows you to advocate for better work environments. For full summaries, keep reading!
Kimball International by the BOSTI Associates, 2001
BOSTI specializes in analyzing businesses and strategically implementing workplace solutions to match needs of employees and businesses. Their research is rigorous and based on objective methodologies. It was conducted with 13,000 workplace users spanning various industries.
This publication is extensive, and is only a snapshot of a larger book by the BOSTI research group. It focuses on top predictors of performance, and explores the design and facility management practices that can improve them.
The major finding that was most interesting to me is that open offices don’t increase open communications. The open office plan’s entire premise is based on the assumption that reducing barriers increases the quality of communication between coworkers. However, BOSTI found the exact opposite to be true:
Figure 1. Full enclosures show the best support for quality communications.
The document is extensive, so here are some of the most relevant passages:
This example of an updated office design includes an interaction-heavy “Main Street” (top left), private workspaces that have physical and auditory blockers, and private group collaboration spaces (bottom).
Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, 2008
This paper is a large scale literature review which overwhelmingly shows that open office plans are negative.
“In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover. The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity” (source).
Journal of Applied Psychology, 2000
This study was conducted with 40 clerical workers, divided into two groups. Individuals in both groups were asked to complete basic office clerical tasks during a 3-hour time period. This was followed by the opportunity to solve puzzles.
The control group did their tasks in a quiet atmosphere. The other group worked with simulated open-office noise that played continuously over loudspeakers, falling between 55 dBa and 65 dBA. The simulated noise included “conversation segments, typing sounds, ringing phones, and drawers being opened and closed.”
The research found that low level open office noises resulted in:
Chronically elevated epinephrine is a risk factor for heart disease. Hence, the study also touches on potential long-term health consequences from chronic low-level noise exposure.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2013
This study is interesting because the authors didn’t actually plan to study open offices going in. They were looking for information on worker satisfaction with office temperatures.
The authors got access to a database of 42,000 responses to a “post-occupancy survey”. The data showed that people who work in open office plans were much less happy with their environment than people in closed offices.
This research turns out to be the largest study of employee satisfaction levels in open offices (source). It specifically analyses employee perception in both closed and open office settings. Occupants assessed Indoor Environmental Quality (IEQ) issues. They found that — enclosed private offices outperformed open offices in acoustics, privacy, and proxemics. At the same time, the benefits of “ease of interaction” in open offices didn’t outweigh the negative impacts on IEQ.
Not only was noise a major problem in open office settings, but collaboration between coworkers did not improve.
Towards the end of the study, the authors note that these results “categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction”.
Mean satisfaction rating (3 = very dissatisfied, through 0 = neutral to 3 = very satisfied) for IEQ questionnaire items by office layout configurations (Error bars = 95% confidence interval).
Environmental Design Research Association (EDRA), 2002
This study followed employees of a large oil and gas company as their workplace transitioned from a “traditional office” to an open one. Surveys were conducted before the transition, 4 weeks after, and six months after. Researchers tracked satisfaction with surroundings, stress levels, job performance, and interpersonal relationships.
Even with the longer adjustment period, employees showed negative results on every single measure. Not only was the workplace more disruptive and stressful, coworkers reported feeling more distant and resentful of their coworkers. Overall, they had lower productivity.
Harvard Business Review, 2011
Read it: Full article
Here’s an infographic on some of the high level points
The authors spent the past 12 years conducting nine studies about the effects of design on workplace interactions. These included original research and extensive literature reviews. Overall, they found that workspaces encourage quality interactions when they exhibit a balance of the three Ps: proximity, privacy, and permission.
There is evidence that decreased physical proximity results in less frequent interactions between coworkers. But it’s not as easy as just putting people closer together. Thomas Allen, organizational psychology professor at MIT, found that the “social geography” of a space was the most important determinant of quality informal interactions.
Instead of focusing on physical centrality, he suggests organizing office layouts to give employees easy access to functional spaces. Such places could be entrances, elevators, photocopiers, and coffee machines, where informal interactions can take place.
This is the point that really flies in the face of accepted open office lore — in order to have higher quality, more frequent informal interactions, workers need to have confidence that they won’t be overheard. Workplaces that allow workers “to control others’ access to [themselves] so that [they] can choose whether or not to interact” are the only ones where truly informal interactions can flourish.
One idea to improve privacy is the concept of an alcove. This can allow people to easily move conversations that started out in the open into a more private space.
Often, if a workplace doesn’t actively specify it, informal chats over coffee are seen as unproductive and employees will avoid them. Companies that encourage this behavior see a rise in quality informal interactions. For instance, Zappos actively encourages managers to spend 20% of their time on socializing and team building.
While physical work environments need these three Ps, so do virtual ones — although it’s more challenging to codify exactly how to provide that. The article covers a variety of examples of nurturing the three Ps in virtual settings.
The article goes on to discuss how to balance these three principles in order to create a workplace that is flexible with the right interplay of these dynamics. Too much of any one of them can backfire. But understanding the fundamentals allows managers to design more productive work spaces. Take a look at this infographic for some high level tips.
National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013
A Chinese travel website called CTrip ran an experiment for 9 months. During this experiment, they gave their call center employees the option to work from home. Half of them remained in the office as a control group.
The company assumed it would save money on office space by allowing workers to telecommute. Any dip in productivity would be offset by those savings. Instead, they found that at-home workers were happier. They also took fewer sick days, and had lower attrition than their in-office counterparts.
The most surprising finding was that they had much higher productivity. Telecommuters completed 13.5% more calls, equalling almost an entire extra work day per week.
There was some level of self-selection in this experiment, which should be considered. One finding was that allowing employees to choose where to work resulted in the best outcomes, since some employees didn’t enjoy working from home.
With call center workers, the work is easy to measure and easy to perform in a remote environment. In general though, there are many factors in determining how effective remote workers might be. The author talked about the need for more research into creative fields. However, he still advocates for allowing one to two work from home days per week (source).
This experiment shows that the common assumption that telecommuters are less productive is often false, and allowing for flexible work from home options can increase employee happiness as well as revenue.
International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2011
This publication was put together by organizational psychologist Matthew Davis. It is a 37-page review of over a hundred studies about office environments. He found that open offices often foster symbolic cohesion. Many employees reported feeling positively about what they represent.
At the same time, these layouts also have negative results in terms of worker attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, stress, motivation, and actual satisfaction.
The publication is organized into the following sections:
Figure 1. Showing the “inter-related nature of an organizational system”
One of my favorite parts is the recommendation to not only use socio-technical systems theory to address the physical workplace environment. But also to expand the methodology to account for the entire work culture, including processes (See Figure 1).
A couple of useful passages —
“Whilst useful in supporting knowledge working, [open office layouts] remain a relatively blunt tool, as it fails to acknowledge the variety of tasks that modern knowledge workers may be involved in, the distributed nature of their interactions, and the shifting temporal nature of their roles and tasks.”
“Becker and Steele (1995) observe that it is necessary for organizations to provide areas that allow workers to meet informally if intra- and inter-team collaboration is to flourish. This goes beyond simply removing office walls and partitions, or seating colleagues closer together; rather, the focus is upon designing a variety of spaces that can help to foster the types of interactions desired, in addition to allowing space for more individualistic tasks. […] Furthermore, flexible workspace and easy access to meeting rooms have been related to higher job satisfaction and group cohesiveness”
Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health, 2011
This report’s authors aimed to study any differences in absences due to sickness — between employees working in open office plans and those in single-occupancy spaces.
For this study, researchers conducted surveys with over 2,400 employees spanning over 2,000 offices in Denmark. They categorized offices based on the self-reported number of occupants in a single work room. Participants were 18–59 years of age and results controlled for “age, gender, socioeconomic status, BMI, alcohol consumption, smoking habits, and physical activity during leisure time.”
The study found that absences due to sickness were highly related to the number of office occupants. Individuals in these settings comprised of more than 6 occupants reportedly taking 62% more sick days than their counterparts in single-occupancy workspaces.
The study authors acknowledge that the surveys can only show correlation, but reviewed other literature to shed light on some possible explanations:
SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2008
This study wanted to measure the disruption cost of interruptions. It also wanted to measure possible differences in disruption costs on different personality types. The goal was to use the findings to inform better system design and help people manage interruptions more effectively. One type of disruption cost is the time it takes to reorient back to the task at hand after an interruption.
The report ends with some recommended next steps in systems design. One suggestion is to use technology to track and control interruptions over long time periods.
Journal of Experimental Psychology, 2014
This study took 300 volunteers and asked them to complete a complicated computer task. This task required them to constantly remember where they were in a sequence.
Researchers interrupted the sequence with side tasks, and found that an attention shift of only 2.8 seconds was enough to mess up the sequence. When the interruptions were at 4.4 seconds, the error rate tripled.
The most disturbing finding was that while participants were distracted and making mistakes, they didn’t exhibit any sort of lag time when reorienting back to the computer task. This means that people don’t know when they’re distracted and can make (potentially catastrophic) mistakes with no awareness.
Environmental Design Research Association, 1982
I added this report not only because it’s a good study, but because it dates back to the early 1980s. It shows that we’ve known how detrimental open offices are from the start.
It also provides some insight into the uniquely negative impacts on people with managerial and technical jobs over those with clerical jobs. Although, every role shows high rates of adverse reactions.
The study followed 649 employees of a Metropolitan County Council. This government office uses a corporate management structure to disseminate and collect information systematically. If assumptions about open offices are correct, this is the perfect structure to benefit from them.
Staff were asked to complete a questionnaire with 96 statements about different aspects of their office environment. There were also some personal and open-ended questions.
Some results include:
Table 1 (left) and Table 2 (right)
A result I found interesting is that employees felt that open offices helped them “get on well with colleagues” and facilitated some level of after-hours socialization. This wasn’t enough to make the work itself less stressful.
Personally, I’m not convinced that hanging out with coworkers outside of work hours is an effective goal, nor is it an incredibly inclusive work expectation.
The study discussed the challenges with defining “productivity” for different types of jobs. It also tried to codify job types and correlate them to reactions to open office plans (see Table 3).
People with jobs that require more deep thought and concentration showed a much higher preference for small offices, and high sensitivity to lack of privacy and number of interruptions.
In fact, “no evidence was found to support the claim that open-planning leads to any improvements in productivity, but rather, if anything, the reverse.”
The Academy of Management Journal, 1980
This is another study dating back to the early 1980s, showing just how long research into open office plans has existed. This report covers three studies that look at the relationships between physical and psychological privacy, job satisfaction, and employee performance. Special attention was paid to the difference between more complex jobs and routine jobs like secretarial work.
It was one of the first studies to really look at the relationship between physical settings and interpersonal behavior. The study was done using prior research work in social and environmental psychology.
The studies looked at people with varying levels of complexity in their jobs. The hypothesis was that — people with less complex jobs (consisting of repetitive work) may benefit from the social stimulation of open office plans.
Some findings include:
This report studied a lot of correlations and resulted in less information about potential causation. But it provided a good basis from which future research was built on top of.
There is overwhelming evidence that existing versions of open office plans are toxic and ineffective. With this, I’d like to pose a question to all organizations with open layouts who pride themselves in being forward thinking, data-informed, progressive, productive, and want to be profitable —
Can you still call yourself a data-driven company if you don’t listen to the data?
And for everyone else, remember — you aren’t broken, but your office might be.