I’ve never liked open offices. Never. I remember the first time my CEO announced that we’d all be giving up our private offices. A part of me felt like I was about to lose my home. The next step? Goodbye cubicles. Now, we all sat together like one big, happy family, and any illusion that you could have a confidential conversation or crash on a deadline without interruption was shattered. I wonder sometimes if the open office trend was partially responsible for my decision to strike out on my own. Growing up, I’d never shared a bedroom with a sibling, and I couldn’t get used to sharing now.
My last open office experience was several years ago, and the trend hasn’t slowed down any. According to the International Facility Management Association in a piece in the Washington Post, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions. As with many trends, Silicon Valley has led this charge. Google, Yahoo, and eBay have had open offices for years, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg even hired famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world for 3,000 of his engineers.
Open Offices Have Been Studied in Earnest
It’s not unusual for companies in more traditional companies to follow what the tech giants are doing, even if it doesn’t appear to make sense. But at some point, you hope reason will win out. The academic community and the media have certainly done their best. Lindsey Kaufman, the author of the Post piece, cited a 2013 study, which found that many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. About 50 percent of the survey respondents housed in open offices were perturbed by the lack of sound privacy, and more than 30 percent by the lack of visual privacy.
Do open offices have any benefits? Proponents often talk up how easy it is to interact with colleagues in any open office. This study showed the opposite to be true. Professionals with private offices were actually the least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue.
Fine, that’s just one study. But then, Maria Konnikova, author of the book Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, published a sort of expose on the open office in the New Yorker. She cited the following results:
Open Office Literature Review by Matthew Davis
More than 100 independent studies showed that open offices have their advantages. Employees apparently feel more in tune with the organization, with a better grip on the company’s vision and values, when they work in an open office. Open offices were also believed to be more innovative. However, Davis’ review also illustrated that open offices caused productivity, attention, and job satisfaction declines. Employees experienced poorer concentration and motivation and greater stress than their counterparts in standard office environments.
Large Scale Open Office Research by David Craig
At global consultancy DEGW in Montreal, professor David Craig surveyed 38,000 professionals and found that more frequent interruptions had a negative impact on productivity. If the employee was more senior, this effect was worse. Craig also found that a sense of privacy and control increase individual performance, whereas open offices remove that control and lead to feelings of helplessness.
Danish Study on Open Offices and Health by Jan Pejtersen
In their study of 2,400 professionals, Pejtersen and his colleagues found that as the number of people working in a single room increased, the number of employees who took sick leave increased as well. Workers in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in totally open offices took an average of 62 percent more.
Cornell Noise Study by Evans and Johnson
According to Evans and Johnson’s research, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine – otherwise known as adrenaline. They also found that people in noisy office environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing greater physical discomfort. Finally, open office subjects also solved fewer create puzzles than those working in a quiet, closed environment.
Exploring the Relatively New Concept of Standing Desks
And what about standing desks and other workplace interventions for reducing sitting time at work? My gut feeling has always been that these don’t work either, at least not in terms of improving productivity. I tried a standing desk for a while, and while it was certainly good for my heart and overall state of fitness, I didn’t kid myself that it helped me get more work done. If anything, I was distracted by the fact that I was standing, and my mind kept wandering to when I could next sit down. I was definitely relieved when my trial came to an end and I could once again curl up in my chair and type away to my heart’s content. For me, exercise and intense concentration on work don’t really go together – although I frequently take part in both separately.
The Evidence (or Lack Thereof) in Favor of Standing Desks
As of this year, you don’t have to take my word for it. Shrestha et al just published a Cochrane work group review of a variety of studies looking at the productivity effects of sit-stand desks.
It was a noble pursuit. Physical inactivity at work, including sitting at desks, has increased in recent years. Long periods of sitting increase the risk for obesity, heart disease, and overall mortality, said the authors.
The authors examined 20 studies with a total of 2174 participants from high-income nations. Nine studies evaluated physical changes in the workplace, four evaluated changes in workplace policy, seven studies evaluated information and counseling interventions and one study evaluated both physical workplace changes and information and counseling components.
Sit-stand desks alone decreased workplace sitting to about half an hour to two hours per day. When combined with information and counseling, sit-stand desks reduced sitting at work in the same range. Sit-stand desks also reduced total sitting time (both at work and outside work) and the duration of sitting episodes that last 30 minutes or longer. Treadmill desks combined with counseling reduced sitting time at work compared to no intervention. Pedaling workstations combined with information did not reduce sitting at work compared to information alone.
But here’s the key: as I would have predicted, more active working arrangements like sit-stand desks had no considerable effect on performance. They did not improve productivity. They also didn’t affect the amount of sick time employees took, which is often included in productivity measures.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All: The Need for Customization
I think that standing desks and similar interventions, like open offices, force employees to work in a certain way that the company might believe is best but in reality varies greatly by the individual. These movements are contrary to what we’re learning about productivity and efficacy, which is that everyone has his own system and that the workplace needs to be flexible enough to accommodate individual preferences. Just because Google and Facebook are doing something does not mean it’s right for your company overall, or for every employee within your company.
I met an in-office worker the other day who quit her executive-level job because the open office situation did not allow her to have confidential meetings. She tried to book conference calls, but her efforts were thwarted, and at the end of the quarter, she couldn’t meet her goals. Frustrated, she asked her CEO for a private area and was refused. The company lost a talented, senior employee as a result. This is sad, and in my opinion, should not have happened.
My advice is to revisit any knee-jerk implementations of these trends. Ask your employees how they really feel about their working environments, listen carefully to the answers, and be prepared to change. Throughout the process, be willing to counsel your employees about how to be happiest and most effective in their current situations.
There’s no harm in trying something new, only to realize later that your original plan was better. But if engagement and retention matter to you and you don’t want to kill your employees’ ambition, don’t insist on plowing forward despite evidence and feedback contrary to your direction.
Also, there’s a difference between an intervention that improves productivity and one that improves health, well-being, or job satisfaction. People have generally expected developments like open offices and standing desks to be all things to all people. In reality, this is not the case. Standing desks, for instance, may be better for health but worse for productivity and satisfaction.
It is rare to implement a change that’s positive all around, and that’s why it’s critical for organizations to assess what’s most important for their employees and their businesses. The answer, of course, is always different, and work environments must be customized accordingly.
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