Open Offices: Ruining Productivity, Lives, Since the ’50s

Open offices are bad for us: they make us less productive, less healthy, and less happy to be at work. Ample research suggests that we’d be better off returning to the days of offices with doors — or, at the very least cubicles with higher walls. So why is the open office so popular?

open office 

(Photo Credit: Phillie Casablanca/Flickr)

A recent New Yorker article examines research on open-plan offices, and determines — no surprise — that privacy and quiet are actually pretty important when you’re trying to create just about anything.

“The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow,” writes Maria Konnikova. “But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.”

That body of evidence comprises several studies, including:

  • A 2010 study that found that noise reduces cognitive performance.
  • Research from 2012 that found a link between office noise and workers’ reduced ability to think.
  • A 2011 study from Denmark that described a connection between the number of people in a room, and the number of workers taking sick leave.

Even committed multitaskers have issues with open offices, according to Konnikova, who quotes cognitive neuroscientist Anthony Wagner’s findings that multitaskers are “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli.” Bottom line: no matter how social you are, or how efficient you are at switching between tasks, too much noise and commotion are going to reduce your productivity.

None of this is a secret, of course. Why, finally, do companies continue to opt for open plans?

In short, money. Open offices allow companies to cram in as many workers as they need, without making a significant investment in equipment.

For those of us who hate open offices, the challenge will be to convince the boss that the loss of productivity associated with working without walls costs more than open plans save.

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