Open Office a Happy Hive? Not So Fast, Researchers Say

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Don’t assume you’ll automatically have happier, more productive employees if you bulldoze private offices and knock down cubicle walls in your workspace, researchers say.

Employers are switching from cubicles or other closed workspaces to open plans, but there’s no real evidence that this generally improves productivity. About one in five organizations have switched to an open-office configuration in the past five years (56 percent of the 36 percent of organizations that have changed their office layout during that time), according a survey released last summer by office staffing firm Robert Half. The company collected responses from more than 300 human resources managers at U.S. companies with 20 or more employees and separately from more than 1,000 U.S. office workers.

One study of a Scandinavian pharmaceutical company that switched to a “fishbowl"-type open office with high standing desks came up with results so negative that the company refused to allow them to be published, Mark E. Benden, who worked on the study, told Bloomberg Law April 9. Benden is director of Texas A&M University’s Ergonomics Center.

Two weeks after the changeover at that company, he recalled, “the conference rooms were booked 100 percent of the time. Scientists would go into them claiming they had a meeting and just work there for eight hours. There was also a scramble to come in early and grab one of the 20 percent of workspaces with windows so you didn’t have to look at other people.”

Another unpublished study casts doubt on the effectiveness of open-plan offices. A study of 493 government employees at five offices in Sweden found that “employees perform better in a concentration-demanding task in cell-offices compared to open-plan offices,” Helena Jahncke, of the Faculty of Health and Occupational Studies at Sweden’s University of Gävle, told Bloomberg Law in an April 9 email.

This result came from the “baseline” part of the research, which was actually intended to study a switch from either open-plan offices or “cell” offices at four of the worksites to “activity-based” offices where the office workers don’t have a fixed workstation and move around depending on their tasks. Employees who switched from closed to activity-based workspaces were “showing less satisfaction with the physical work environment, less self-rated productivity and well-being” compared with those who transitioned from regular open-plan offices, Jahncke said. (There was no change at the fifth worksite, which served as the study’s control.)

Beware the Backlash

Benden said a study at a call center in Tennessee found “productivity went up 42 percent with more flexible options” for where employees could work. The key, he said, is to combine any changeover to an open-plan office with other spaces, such as “touchdown or huddle zones and conference rooms.”

Rectilinear office designs aren’t ideal, he said, and are better replaced by a “four-petal flower arrangement.” Benden said he favors moving to standing desks, “where you go from everyone being 29 inches tall and 2-D, to 3-D.” Successful open offices incorporate other features designed to make employees move around more, he said, such as placing trash bins, printers, and coffeemakers at the end of an aisle, one per floor, or even on other floors.

U.S. companies also should take into account that they are copying open-plan office designs from Europe and Asia, importing them into an American culture that protects individuals’ personal space, Benden said. “You will get backlash, especially if people who were used to a closed office are switched to an open one.”

The employee part of the Robert Half survey supports the backlash thesis, with a split of 48 percent to 32 percent on whether open-plan offices help or hinder productivity, respectively. By contrast, 86 percent said that closed offices help productivity and only 5 percent felt that they hinder it. Employees did generally feel that open-plan offices help collaboration (66 percent) versus hindering it (14 percent), although the figures weren’t very different when they were asked whether closed offices help or hinder collaboration (60 percent to 18 percent, respectively).

Depends on People

Open-plan offices can increase collaboration, “but it’s really about proximity—it can happen in closed offices, too,” workplace psychologist Ilona Jerabek, president and chief executive officer of Montreal-based PsychTests, told Bloomberg Law April 6. Often the productivity gains are just a cover for the company saving money on square footage, she said.

“The downsides to open offices include noise pollution leading to distraction,” Jerabek said. That’s a particular problem for people who need to focus on creative or complex work, she said.

PsychTests’ own facilities include mostly closed offices apart from the IT team, which is in an open-office setup, she said, “and we constantly have to figure out how to get the programmers away from distractions so we can talk to them.”

“One size doesn’t fit all,” Steve Saah, executive director of Robert Half Finance and Accounting, told Bloomberg Law April 9. “Each organization needs to look at its staff and how they need to collaborate within and across departments, and not go with the latest trend, though open plans are becoming more widespread.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at mbermangorvine@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Martha Mueller Neff at mmuellerneff@bloomberglaw.com

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