open-officeThe cube farm seems to be a vanishing breed, and few, if any, workers merit a private office. Open offices, with no divisions between adjacent workers, are today’s preferred style. This layout can clearly affect individual and group productivity, and the debate rages on as to whether the inevitable distractions and interruptions do enough damage to offset gains in collaboration and communication.

In a New Yorker article titled The Open Office Trap, author Maria Konnikova surveys the research on open offices. Most of it doesn’t support the concept. According to one study,

The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

And, in another,

Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.

There’s lots more damning data in Konnikova’s article, but I wondered why so many companies, and in particular high tech firms, stick with the open office concept.

Got Flow?

In particular, I wondered about whether open offices inhibit flow. Wikipedia offers a nice definition of flow:

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Writers, coders, and other knowledge workers can be highly productive when in a state of flow. At first glance, it seems that open offices, with their potential for frequent interruptions and distractions, would more or less eliminate the possibility of achieving or maintaining flow.

steven kotlerI talked with author Steven Kotler for Episode 3 of The Brainfluence Podcast. Kotler is an expert on flow and author of The Rise of Superman, a new book that focuses on how extreme athletes both achieve flow and depend on it for their seemingly superhuman achievements.

Here’s how our conversation went when I brought up open offices:

Roger: I’m curious how you feel about open office plans. On the one hand they sort of foster the social interaction you were talking about and the unpredictability and so on, but at the same, it seems like they can be concentration destroyers with interruptions and so on. What do you think about open offices, or what’s your ideal design?

Steven: It gets a little more complicated. What we’ve been talking about so far is individual flow – you or me on our own getting in the flow. You can also say there’s something called group flow. This is a shared version of the flow state.

If you’ve ever seen a fourth quarter comeback in football where suddenly it looks like ballet because everybody’s in the exact right place at the exact right time, that’s group flow in action. If you’ve taken part at work in a great brainstorming session, that too, is group flow in action.

The interesting question here is, as a general rule – and Csikszentmihalyi actually wrote an article for the New York Times about this – open office plans are terrible for individual flow because you need uninterrupted periods of concentration for flow.

To go back to Montessori education for a second, one of the other reasons Montessori education produces flow so much, is it’s built around these 90 minute blocks of uninterrupted concentration. These things are sacred to Montessori education; you don’t mess with them. It’s always there, even though the schools are independently owned, they always emphasize this.

Open office plans destroy that, but they, if set up correctly, can be used to foster group flow.

Facebook, for example – not only do they have open office plans, they have everybody on walking desks facing one another. They are denying their employees individual flow but… they have inadvertently created conditions that [encourage] group flow… studies have to be done comparing productivity with group flow vs. productivity in individual flow.

It may be a company by company decision which is more important.

brainfluence-podcastIn short, the same conditions that destroy individual flow may help create group flow. Clearly, the social dynamics of the group would have to be positive. If workers were suspicious, overly competitive, or simply disengaged, it seems unlikely that they would eagerly jump into mutual problem-solving mode that characterizes group flow.

Grab the whole transcript or download/listen to my entire conversation with Kotler here: Ep #3: The Seven Characteristics of Flow with Steven Kotler.

Personally, I remain skeptical of the open office advantage. Many open office workers resort to headphones to restore privacy and minimize distraction (see Can Neuro-Music Boost Your Productivity?), which is a less than perfect solution. Konnikova’s article describes still more research showing that even music impairs our mental acuity.

And, I suppose, if workers are all cocooned in their own musical worlds, achieving group flow as described by Kotler would be more difficult.

So where do you weigh in on open offices – are the a boon to productivity and group flow, or are they hotbeds of distraction that will be gone in a few years? Share your experiences and opinions in a comment!