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The Recycled Myth of the Open Office

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Value of Offices vs. Cubicles for Teams is Open Question

Most startups in America, and many established companies, seem convinced that an open seating arrangement with low-walled cubicles and people facing each other is the best one to foster collaboration. Yet, in my two contracts at Microsoft, I noticed that every regular employee was given his or her own office, or at least a high-walled cubicle shielding everyone within direct view. There’s a disconnect here. Every company would love to have the financial success of Microsoft, so why don’t they adopt Microsoft’s seating arrangements?

A scientific examination of workstations and communication questions the common assumption in my lead sentence. In fact, as management professors James Stryker of Holy Names Univ. and Michael Santoro of Lehigh Univ. write in a journal article, the evidence has been contradictory. Their research review makes it clear that the value of open cubicles versus offices is unclear. Stryker also has a master’s degree in architecture from Yale Univ., and has helped design high-tech research and development (R&D) facilities for 20 years.

They are indirectly confronting what has been called the bias of “Illusory correlation,” defined as, “People’s tendency to believe that two variables covary when they do not” (see “How Your Brain is Fooling You”). It may seem like people who see each other will collaborate more, but that does not appear to be the case.

Stryker and Santoro were handed a perfect opportunity to investigate further in the real world. A major life sciences company built a new R&D building and wanted to know if the design had an impact on work habits. The old and new sites housed similar types of people who did similar types of lab work. The only significant difference was in the environments:

  • Old, built in the 1920s—“The laboratory floor has a series of labs and offices in the center of the floor surrounded by a loop corridor. The offices are separated from the labs by a glass wall. On the other side of the main loop corridor are… lab offices located along the exterior wall of the building. The break area for lab employees is located on the third floor, as are the toilets; a large cafeteria and common meeting rooms are located on the eighth floor of the building.”
  • New—A “three-story facility housing state-of-the-art laboratories, offices, and open workstations oriented around an open, sky-lit atrium. Open workstations and four glass-walled offices surround the atrium on each floor. Other features of the design include a coffee bar, three glass-walled meeting rooms, and an informal break area located at the end of the atrium.”

Stryker and Santoro tested whether the layouts had an impact on face-to-face (“F2F”) communication, stating that “recent studies have underlined the importance of F2F communication for successfully accomplishing complex team tasks.” Within limits, higher levels of discussion improve group decision-making. Also, team cohesion tends to link with performance, and Stryker and Santoro posited that more communication will lead to more cohesion. (They did not measure cohesion, however.)

They looked at whether a person sat in an open workstation such as a low-walled cubicle or glass-walled office versus a closed one, but also whether the workstation was visible to a lot of people; how many people sat within 10 meters; and how close it was to common areas like break and meeting rooms. Along with a 43-item questionnaire about demographics and social structure, “participants were sent a web-based questionnaire 2-3 times each week on randomly selected days for 8 weeks.” That survey asked who they had F2F communications with that day, where, and whether these were team members.

The results showed that the overriding factor in whether team members talked face to face was not the openness of the workstation, but where it was located. “Specifically, respondents occupying high-visibility workstations reported 59 percent more F2F team communication than those in low-visibility workstations…” the researchers report. “In high visibility work locations, there was no significant difference in F2F communication between open, low-walled workstations and closed offices. In low-visibility situations, respondents in open, low-walled workstations reported 31 percent more team F2F communication than occupants of closed offices.” Even more important was accessible common areas. Having more of those within 25 meters of one’s workstation increased F2F communication with team members by 102%.

In other words, whether you have 10 team members around a single desk or instead in small offices off the same hallway is unlikely to change how much F2F communication they have, especially if meeting rooms, a break room, or the bathrooms are nearby.

However, I need to raise a big red flag. Stryker and Santoro did not measure productivity, either of the individuals or their teams. Their measure for communication was only the number of times the person talked to someone, not the quality of that communication or how long each was. Interruptions for social or non-urgent work talk at inconvenient times reduce work time. They also add the cost of mentally switching gears. Distractions from general noise and movement go up substantially in open environments, again reducing productivity. I believe reduced distractions and interruptions are the main reasons that in most work situations, the average telecommuter produces more and better individual work than someone at the work site.

I predict research eventually will show that teams whose members sit relatively close to each other but in individual offices or private cubicles outperform other similar teams. Add in plenty of common areas for chance encounters while people are already away from their work, plus regular meetings to plan and report on work together, and you will have the perfect balance between individual and team needs to maximize productivity of the group.

This study also exemplifies the need to be careful when you read articles in the popular press or on the Web about success stories, or for that matter, about study results. Did the success story consider all the possible factors that might have led to the success? What exactly did the study look at compared to others investigating that topic? As always, the devil, and the truth, is in the details.

Source: Stryker, J., and M. Santoro (2012), “Facilitating Face-to-Face Communication in High-Tech Teams,” Research-Technology Management 55(1):51.

More Questions on Open Offices

Once I turned down a possible full-time contract in London. Sounds dumb, right? I was eager to go until I looked over the company Web site. Then I learned everyone sits in a big room at tables with no cubicle walls between them. Based on common wisdom about open offices helping collaboration, you might think a team builder would love that.

I do not. I believe other methods are better at improving collaboration, while open office layouts reduce individual productivity and average job satisfaction more than any team productivity gains can outweigh.

The human brain is hard-wired to notice changes in our physical surroundings. Noises, movement, shiny objects… all of these attract our attention. Noticing such things can be the difference between life and death. That change in our environment might be a hungry lion or a truck in our lane, so we better notice it. In a work environment, though, it steals attention from our work.

This fact seems lost on managers who claim higher team output will result from an open office. Compared to everybody sitting in closed offices with no incentive to communicate, I suppose it could. The problem is, those managers don’t consider the trade-offs. Nor do they consider other, proven methods of increasing team communication.

Made curious by my experience, I started researching. The first two studies I found provide 40 years of perspective. I was interested to learn that according to a 2011 study, “literature on privacy in office work goes back over 100 years.” It said a review in 1987 “reported that office workers were more likely to report dissatisfaction… when there were few enclosures surrounding work areas, when employees were seated close to one another and when there were many employees in the office.”

Nonetheless, a 1973 experiment found that a company’s product engineers preferred an open office with no assigned workstations after a change from private offices. On average they did not report a major change in noise or distraction, and there was a marked increase in the number of people they communicated with. But the study authors noted many people were in two-person offices prior to the change, which can be just as distracting as an open room. Cubicles were not considered. Also, these people spent 30 percent of their work time away from those desks, and may have felt differently if stuck there all day. Critically, despite the improved satisfaction, the authors said the experiment “was unsuccessful in that no measurable increase in departmental performance was registered over the period of the study” (a year).

A 2011 study in the U.K. looked directly at the issue of distraction. It provided a battery of questionnaires to 196 people with similar jobs and demographics at the same company but working in different layouts. The buildings of one group “consisted of 10–20 rooms with up to 10 occupants (each), screens or cubicles largely at the occupants’ discretion and a small number of private offices.” The other worked in a “facility with over 300 occupants housed in large halls with 50 or more per hall. These halls had bullpen layouts with limited screens, partitions or cubicles and no clear demarcation or separation of public spaces, such as walkways and personal workspaces.”

Of particular interest to the researchers and to me were the extra demands the open workspace put on people. In particular, one questionnaire looked at “self-control demands,” meaning how much the job:

  • “inhibits employees from expressing spontaneous responses and emotions”
  • “requires employees to complete tasks they do not naturally like”
  • “requires the employee to actively ignore distractions”

The questionnaire showed that the correlation between these demands and psychological stress was higher in the open office, meaning it was harder to deal with those demands on top of the distractions, the scientists said. Also, ratings on a questionnaire measuring “mental workload, physical workload, time pressure, effort, performance satisfaction and frustration” were higher for people in the open office. The result “implies that a lack of privacy at work… increases the mental demands of working life and should be considered as a job stressor in people who need privacy,” the authors write. Additional evidence suggests that “those affected do not become accustomed to it over time (up to 12 months).”

Comments from a separate ergonomic survey of the open office brought these issues alive. “They complained of having to sit close to people of widely different seniority, of being distracted by unexpected noises, such as telephones and other people’s conversations, and that the contents of their own computer screens were often in public view,” the study said. Maybe some people wanted to shop or gamble, but a fair concern is the desire not to have others second-guessing what you choose to work on moment to moment, or to see your work when still in a rough form.

A senior manager at a large company with a history of private offices told me many young hires are disappointed not to have open layouts. This is a generation that may need to be trained out of multitasking to reach maximum individual productivity; many of these folks are accustomed to distraction, but studies show they are no better at ignoring it. That said, I think there is a happy medium. I consulted once in a building with private offices arranged close together. People regularly talked to each other from their seats near open doors, but could close those doors when needing to focus.

Two studies do not disprove the value of open layouts. But these and other relevant studies suggest the assumption that open offices help performance is a dangerously big one. Focus on creating a team structure and formalizing your processes before you spend the money to re-do your offices, regardless of the current layout.

Sources:

  • Allen, T., and P. Gerstberger (1973), “A Field Experiment to Improve Communications in a Product Engineering Department: The Nonterritorial Office,” Human Factors 15:487.
  • Bridger, R., and K. Brasher (2011), “Cognitive Task Demands, Self-Control Demands and the Mental Well-Being of Office Workers,” Ergonomics 54(9):830.

Close the Door on the Open Office Myth

“‘The really groovy, wide-open office, with folks shown interacting informally all day, is a visually seductive myth. Research shows it doesn’t support work very well and, in fact, can incur significant losses in individual and team performance and job satisfaction.’”

Barry Haynes’ doctoral dissertation was on the link between office layout and productivity. His review in a journal article of scientific findings about “open offices” included some choice quotes from fellow researchers, including the one above and:

  • Research shows that “‘despite all the furniture, technical and social fixes that have been tried to render cubicles more acceptable to employees, on the whole cubicles flunk.’
  • “‘Whilst the espoused organisational benefits of open-plan environments relate to improved teamwork and communication, the actual effects experienced by the occupier can be that of increased crowding and loss of privacy.’”

If you watched the television show “Mad Men,” you know the open office is nothing new. It was, in fact, the standard layout for all but company executives beginning with the rise of office work during the Industrial Revolution, and even they often shared an office. I will let Wally Bock, an expert on supervision, pick up the story:

“Then, in 1967, Herman Miller offered the ‘Action Office’ based on the research and design of Robert Propst. His idea was to provide an environment that would promote productivity by providing some privacy, but which would be easy (to) change…

“There were features to improve productivity, like variable desk height so you could work standing up. And there was a pretty good amount of space. That didn’t last long. Action Office spaces became standardized. They also shrank and became ‘the cubicle…’”

In short, the trend toward open offices ignores the history: Cubicles were a response to open offices, not private ones. We tried open offices and they didn’t work. As Wally says:

“The problem is that there are always trade-offs… All the discussion of the ideal office seems to avoid the larger question: ‘When should we have common offices at all?’”

When, indeed. The Action Office was likely influenced by a similar arrangement initiated in Germany in 1960, “Bürolandschaft.” This used “movable screens, furniture clusters, and planters arranged to optimize interpersonal communication and work flow.” However, an applied psychologist reported in 1986, “surveys of user reactions have almost invariably highlighted numerous serious problems with the resulting office conditions.” Typical complaints include “loss of privacy (both visually and conversationally), high incidence of distractions, frequent interruptions by other employees, and problems with the ambient conditions.” The psychologist cites 15 studies with similar results.

A study of two government buildings found the same problems when directly comparing people in open and closed floor plans, and noted people were sicker in open offices. The majority of people complained that temperatures and lighting were unsatisfactory in open offices. Self-reported productivity was lower. The approach was tried and abandoned in the Netherlands, that study said.

Haynes’s review found some indication that distraction has a stronger negative impact when tasks are complex—like, say, those of “knowledge workers” who are most often shoved into cubicles or open offices. Among the open office complaints, distraction did the biggest harm to productivity. Private offices clearly reduce distraction, as shown in data from yet another study:

Office Type Rarely Distracted Frequently Distracted
Single-room occupant 48% 29%
Double-room occupant 30% 52%
Open plan office 19% 65%

The myopia, not to mention hypocrisy, of managers who sit in private offices and choose an open-office layout for their employees was exposed in a quote from the CEO of a design-build company. He tried to work in a cubicle, but couldn’t, according to Crain’s Chicago Business. “’I’m attention-deficit,’” he says. “’And I curse too much.” You don’t have to have ADD for distraction to reduce your focus. And why does he think only bosses benefit from venting?

The issue is getting attention in the media. A science writer for The Atlantic reviewed studies showing that background noise reduced mental ability, and that “psychological privacy correlated with greater job satisfaction and performance.”

A Toronto Star headline summarizes the problem: “Too much collaboration hurts office productivity: Survey cites lack of dedicated workspaces as the culprit behind flagging focus.” The study, which polled 2,035 workers in a broad range of industries, found a strong correlation between focus, productivity, and job satisfaction. Wally Bock pointed me to a swarm of news articles reporting a backlash against open offices.

That’s good, because a single study report can be misleading. Many good studies show benefits to an open office for one or two consequences. A 2008 journal article showed communication improvements in “multi-space” offices versus private offices. But we’ve seen there is a significant cost in individual productivity and satisfaction. Multiply each individual loss across the team, and you have wiped out any team-wide productivity gains from the improved communication. There are other ways to get folks talking.

Certainly the type of office needs to match the type of work. Haynes, now at Sheffield Hallam Univ., says “the connection between the three major components of office layout, office occupiers’ work patterns and productivity is not clearly established.” A science lab or assembly line has to be open. But the clear conclusion is that cubicles, and more so open offices, hurt office worker productivity far more than they help.

Why, then, do companies persist against all this evidence to use open offices? Haynes answers: “The trend towards open-plan environments has largely been driven by organisations aiming to reduce accommodation costs.” However, “by adopting the cost reduction paradigm, organisations run the risk of creating office environments that are ultimately uncomfortable and unworkable.”

Yet again, the culprit is a focus on short-term costs over long-term profits. That motive is all the more specious given that the incremental costs of taking cubicle walls up to the ceiling and adding sliding doors would be a small addition as a percentage of overall new or redesigned facility costs. In return for that extra investment, smart companies would create environments in which individuals and teams were more productive, and less likely to be sick or quit, year after year.

Executives, what’s good for you is good for your workers—and your long-term profits.

Sources:

  • Review by the author of peer-reviewed scientific-journal abstracts in two databases, and research for previous articles in this section.
  • Beck, J. (2014), “The Optimal Office: How Better Design could Fix Your Workday—and Your Life,” The Atlantic, 313(3):16.
  • Bell, A. (2010), Re-imagining the Office. Gower: Farnham, Surrey, England.
  • Boutellier, R., F. Ullman, J. Schreiber and R. Naef (2008), “Impact of Office Layout on Communication in a Science-Driven Business,” R&D Management 38(4):372. SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1230318.
  • Haynes, B. (2008), “The Impact of Office Layout on Productivity,” Journal of Facilities Management 6(3):189-201. Author’s version: Sheffield Hallam Univ. Research Archive: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/4594/.
  • Hedge, A. (1986), “Open versus Enclosed Workspaces: The Impact of Design on Employee Reactions to their Offices,” in J. Wineman, ed., Behavior Issues in Office Design. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co.: New York.
  • Lee, Y. (2010), “Office Layout Affecting Privacy, Interaction, and Acoustic Quality in LEED-Certified buildings,” Building & Environment 45(7):1594-1600.
  • Morgan, C. (2013), “Too Much Collaboration Hurts Office Productivity,” Toronto Star, 7/3/13:10.
  • Sailer, K., and I. McCulloh (2012), “Social Networks and Spatial Configuration—How Office Layouts Drive Social Interaction,” Social Networks 34(1):47.
  • Serio, S. (2013), “For Clayco CEO, Open Office Layout has its Limitations,” Crain’s Chicago Business. 36(17):25.

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