Do Open Offices Destroy Productivity?


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!

  1. Mark Levison says

    Roger – There is a a whole world of possibility missing in this conversation. What if you put people work on the same Product, Problem etc in a team room? In the Scrum (a flavour of Agile) we’ve been using team rooms for some time. While I’m not of a turn of research on the effects, many of us have helped clients increase productivity at the team layer. The rules are pretty simple – give a team up 10 people their own room, walls with whiteboards and daylight. Instead of cubes the core of the room has an open common team space. Some teams have 1-2 spaces on the outside of the room for private/quiet work if a team member needs it.

    Clearly there is alot more detail than I can convey in a comment. Contact me offline if you want to dig into more detail.


    1. Roger Dooley says

      Great input, Mark. That sounds like the ideal recipe for developing team flow, based on my conversation with Steven K. When adjacent people are united by a common goal and shared interests, they can collaborate and build on each other’s ideas.

      Too many open offices, though, are just open areas with adjacent individuals working on their own stuff trying to seal out the world with headphones.

      1. Mark Levison says

        Roger we agree about the pain of open offices. I make it pretty clear to clients that these are an expensive mistake. That 100-200K invested in walls will pay off. With the right client mistakes get reversed. In the long run organizations need to optimize for productivity or die. We’re already starting to see it – organizations that can’t keep up with the rate of change in their industry die.

        Open offices will eventually breed themselves out of existance, it will just take time.


  2. Etaoin Shrdlu says

    The “open office” is such a narrow concept, and poorly defined. Do we question whether grocery store stock clerks work better in an open office, or construction workers? Is a school classroom like an open office? Doesn’t a career baseball player or football player have an open office while they practice and work?

    An “open office” should be a “designed office” – one where there is a variety of spaces – shared desk space, quiet individual space, private meeting space, paths of forced or random interaction, places where food or beverages facilitate creative thought. Just placing desks in a big hall isn’t going to work any better than the deadening and minimally-private cube farm.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Optimizing interaction design is the idea, ES. How often that happens in reality is open to question.

  3. Tim Allemann says

    I think the effect of open plan may be different for extroverts and introverts. While extroverts get their energy from other people, introverts often need to energise through solitude. Introverts also internalise before they externalise therefore often need time to think things through before sharing with a (small) group. I therefore think that open plan is least conducive to the work efficiency and ideas of introverts – who may often have the most considered ideas. This may not be as much of a problem in the US where the majority are extroverts, but it depends on the makeup of your workforce. For some companies, and for many countries with a greater proportion of introverted personality types, it may be a bigger consideration. Just a perspective on one of the factors to consider – open plan probably affects different people in different ways.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Tim. I’d guess that individual differences in multiple areas could affect how well people do in different office environments. Some workers may be able to shut out distractions and focus effectively while others may not, for example. Unfortunately, companies generally have no way of assessing individual styles or tendencies, nor are the set up to accommodate them. Giving an easily-distracted individual a private office might work for that one person, but not for the organization as a whole.

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