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Science Just Proved That Open Plan Offices Destroy Productivity

A huge study of 40,000+ workers in 300+ companies revealed that open plan offices don’t work.

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BY Geoffrey James - 19 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Bear with me because I'll get to the science in a moment. First I want to give a little context. Earlier today, I got a story pitch on the "office of the future" that featured the following bullet points:

1. Remote Work Will be the New Norm: According to recent Fuze research, 83% of workers don't think they need to be in an office to be productive and 38% said they would enjoy their job more if they were allowed to work remotely.

2. Physical Space Will Shrink: We'll see more companies shift to a more collaborative office space model with workspaces that bring together teams, spark conversation, and create the best ideas.

3. Traditional Desks Will Disappear: The so-called "cubicle farm" will become a distant memory and people will start embracing an environment that suits their needs - whether it be a table at a coffee shop, a standing desk or collaboration space.

4. "Office Hours" Will Become Obsolete: The workday isn't 9-5 anymore, it's 24/7. In fact, a recent Fidelity survey found that Millennials will take a pay cut for a more flexible work environment.

I'm reproducing the list (which is very much "conventional wisdom") because it illustrates the crazy-making way that companies think about open plan offices. Can you see the disconnect? Bullets 1 and 4 are saying that people don't want to work in an office, while bullets 2 and 3 are defining the very office environment where people don't want to work.

And isn't that the sad truth? Most people would rather work at home and or tolerate angry stares from the other patrons in a coffee shop (should one need to make a call) than try to get something done in an open plan office.

In previous posts, I've provided links to numerous studies showing that open plan offices are both a productivity disaster and a false economy. (The productivity drain more than offsets the savings in square footage.) I've even posted some videos showing how wretched (and in some cases ridiculous) these environments truly are.

Well, just in case you weren't yet convinced, here's some new evidence from a study of over 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings--by far the most comprehensive research on this issue. The results, published in the Journal of Environment Psychology came to the following conclusion:

"Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced 'ease of interaction' were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration."

Don't let the jargon confuse you. The term "proxemics issues" refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they're forced into close proximity with other people. To be perfectly clear, here's what the paragraph says: "open plan offices aren't worth it."

BTW, it isn't just the noise and the interruptions that cause people to hate open plan offices. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article:

"All of this social engineering has created endless distractions that draw employees' eyes away from their own screens. Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee's field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity."

Unlike noise pollution, which can be remedied with a pair of headsets, there's no way to block out the visual pollution, short of throw a towel over your head and screen like toddler's play tent.

So, getting back to the story pitch and the conventional wisdom it represents: yes indeed people want to work at home and, yes indeed they're willing to take a cut in pay to get away from the open plan office that you've offered them.

What's weird is that the people who design office spaces and the executives who hire them, don't see the connection. They seem unable to understand that forcing open plan offices down everyone's throat is not only ruining productivity but it's actively driving good employees to avoid to coming into the office.

So let me make it simple.

Dear Executive: Do you want your employees to come into the office and work long hours while they're there? THEN GIVE THEM PRIVATE OFFICES. At the very least, give them high-walled cubicles that provide a modicum of privacy.

For crying out loud, is this really that difficult a concept to understand?

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