Science, superstition, and open plan offices

If you’re anything like me, you probably have one or more anti-science, anti-rationalist bêtes noires. Maybe you like to rage against the creationists and what they’re doing to our schools. Or gripe about the global warming deniers and what they’re doing to our planet. Or fume about the crazy anti-vaccination nuts and what they’re doing to global health. There are plenty of people out there who’ve simply made up their minds – unshakeably – about something that’s been proven by science to be the reverse of what they think.

Of course, scientists once thought that humans had 48 chromosomes. That partially hydrogenated vegetable oil was healthy. That egg yolks were bad for you. The great thing about science is that it’s willing to admit its mistake when proven wrong – not so, the superstitious. They’ll prefer their own beliefs in the absence of any supporting evidence, while simultaneously either ignoring or actively discounting any evidence to the contrary.

And so, open plan offices. Searching on “open plan offices research” will serve up article after article describing the pernicious effects of open plan offices on worker productivity, happiness, and even health. Each of the following articles describes and links to research done in this field, and paints a pretty grim picture of life without walls (ironically, the research itself is mostly behind paywalls).

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

The argument for the open-plan office is that it forces workers to talk to each other and triggers fruitful and surprising collaborations that wouldn’t have happened with everyone hunkered down inside their own four walls. A recent study that surveyed 40,000 American officer workers, however, found that those in open-plan arrangements were not only less happy with their workspace than those with private offices; those surveyed also judged that the ”benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” The authors write: “the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”

A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that open office setups reported 62% more sick days on average than one-occupant layouts.

CK Mak and YP Lui questioned 259 office workers about the importance of sound, temperature, office layout, air quality and lighting for productivity; they found that sound and temperature mattered the most. The most irritating noises were conversations, ringing phones and machines.

Scanning work from the Journal of Human Ecology, Academy of Management Journal and Administrative Science Quarterly, Tonya Smith-Jackson and Katherine Klein identified reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy as factors negatively affecting productivity in open-plan environments. Similar to Mak and Lui findings, the resounding message in the research is that overhearing conversations in the office is very intrusive and distracting for workers.

Lest anyone make the mistake that this is new research, consider that DeMarco and Lister devoted seven chapters to the issue of office environment in Peopleware, a software engineering management classic on par with The Mythical Man-Month. There isn’t one quote that neatly sums up seven chapters describing decades of research into distractions, personal space, office vs. cube, etc., but it’s pretty thorough in its skewering of a proven unproductive workspace.

It isn’t so surprising that companies in legacy workspaces fall back on open plans or cubicles – it’s cheaper, you can pack more people in, and it can be hard to overcome the inertia of an existing space. It also isn’t that surprising – if a bit more disappointing – that companies moving into new locations don’t take the opportunity to get things right. Open plan has the advantages of being familiar, allowing more people to fit into the same space, and being more egalitarian. I.e., since offices are viewed as status symbols, providing them to developers and not to other groups could have a significant negative impact on morale among non-developers.

Still, there’s a continuum – from a pure open plan with exposed desks, to low, medium, high walls, to shared offices, to private offices. It would be nice to be able to work in a setting optimized for performance, but at the very least we can strive for environments not actively inimical to thought work. The more of a sense of privacy you can create, the fewer distractions, the quieter the space – the more productive your team is going to be. The more visual distractions, the smaller the space, the closer to noisy neighbors or collaboration areas – the less your engineers will get into flow, and the less they’ll be able to get done. The problem is that productivity loss is invisible – your company simply gets slower – so you’ll never know what might have been. Consider the following conclusions from years of research into engineering performance:

Three rules of thumb seem to apply whenever you measure variations in performance over a sample of individuals: Count on the best people outperforming the worst by about 10:1. Count on the best performer being about 2.5 times better than the median performer. Count on the half that are better-than-median performers outdoing the other half by more than 2:1. … The top quartile, those who did the exercise most rapidly and effectively, work in space that is substantially different from that of the bottom quartile. The top performers’ space is quieter, more private, better protected from interruption, and there is more of it.

– DeMarco and Lister, Peopleware

Now, you may be thinking that your office is different. That the engineers at your company are more productive, or more in tune with the needs of the business because of the constant natural interaction with their coworkers. You may think that conversations resulting from an open plan improve the direction of the work, which is worth the price in productivity (better to be slower and doing the right thing, then rapidly working toward the wrong goals).

It’s possible that you’re correct – i.e., that the structured processes in your organization for communicating direction, gathering status, and following up with course corrections are ineffective, and that people are falling back on informal mechanisms to make up for the problem. However, rather than throwing up your hands in surrender, this is an opportunity to explore why the formal process is failing, and to see if you can fix that. Relying on informal chatter to achieve your business objectives isn’t just bad because it’s “damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction,” but also because it means you’re abdicating your responsibility as a leader and relying on The Hope Method™ to make sure direction is being communicated accurately and followed. Surely, this must be the worst possible option.

Alternatively, you might be thinking that it’s impossible to change your team’s space. This is far more common – whether due to management decisions, physical space limitations, or whatever, it’s your job to snatch productivity from the jaws of a noisy, interruption-prone work area. Can you get your team headphones? Get them to face their monitors away from the aisle? Take responsibility for intercepting and assigning incoming requests? Change the team’s communication style to emphasize asynchronous communication (e.g., email) over synchronous (phone, IM, conversations) when possible? Blocking access to, or discouraging conversation with the team, is almost always a disastrously bad idea – it’s the kind of micro-managing, politically inept behavior that gets first-time managers panicking over a deadline into serious trouble. Much better to obviate the need – to create a structure for the team to communicate with their business partners at regular intervals, make sure that they’re sharing status frequently, educate them on the productivity trap of constant interruption, and follow up with them regularly to see how they’re doing. It takes more time and effort than just accepting the status quo, but that’s your responsibility as a leader.

3 thoughts on “Science, superstition, and open plan offices

  1. It seems this is a new reason for why egg yolks are bad for you! It’s not necessarily the cholesterol.

    More info is still needed – food surveys over time are notoriously inaccurate, e.g. can you remember how many eggs you had this week? How about last week?

    Either way – eating egg salad sandwiches for lunch in my cube every day is probably doubly bad for me!

    • Tom, eggs are not bad for you — especially those from free range chickens raised organically. They’re full of good omega-3 fatty acids, protein — they’re just good food. The research about them running your cholesterol numbers up was just plain erroneous. Your body will manufacture what cholesterol you don’t ingest in your diet.

      I suspect the research indicating that open-plan offices would increase productivity is just as flawed. My own experience, though anecdotal in nature, confirms to me that I am far more productive in a closed office space when the tasks require real brain power. Sure I can do mindless robot work in an open-space environment where the recovery time from interruptions and distractions is minimal. But if I’m really dug into some complex thought processes — getting back to that point after being interrupted simply wastes time.

      Combine enclosed offices with small adjoining and open mini-conference areas where employees can gather for relatively quick and informal collaborations and you’ve got a much more ideal and productive work environment, in my opinion.

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