Open plan offices: Do they suck?
July 19, 2008 1:06 PM   Subscribe

ArchitectureFilter: What evidence supports the use of open plan offices, from a worker productivity perspective?

I recently went on a tour of a newly constructed office building. It's very open plan (picture) with several hundred people in one contiguous area spanning multiple floors.

Most of my past experience has been in shared enclosed offices (2-7 people in an enclosed space) and when touring the building, it struck me that the wide-open environment would be noisy, which would present a distraction that would negatively impact upon workers' productivity.

However, if the negative effects were as bad as they intuitively seem, the building would not have been built in this style. Clearly, there must have been rigorous studies performed demonstrating that open plan designs do not have a substantial negative impact on productivity.

Where can I find these studies?
posted by Mike1024 to Work & Money (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This is anecdotal, but my office has a very open plan with no cube walls. If I were to do it again I would put in at least cubes. The level of noise and distractions can sometimes become a problem.
They sure look nice in photos but in reality they leave something to be desired from a worker perspective. I've made my own distracting limiting cube walls with books and organizers.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 1:35 PM on July 19, 2008

I don't have knowledge of evidence in favor, but against it.

In Peopleware DeMarco and Lister show evidence on the contrary. At least when comparing software engineerings (programmers), those with closed space work environments are much more productive than those with cubicle spaces.

Some of the reviews provide more information.
posted by brandnew at 1:37 PM on July 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

There's an assumption in the question, which is that because this happens, there should be good reason for it. That's necessarily the case. Managers frequently make decisions about what kind of space they want based on their own beliefs about what works and doesn't, their desire to be able to see everyone at their station, and their thoughts on what constitutes productivity (and whether they think that's even measurable).

The people at the levels that make the "open space" vs "offices" decision look at most two things: how many people can I fit for $x, and they weight that against potential turnover.

(yeah, I've been on the wrong end of this decision process more than once)
posted by dmz at 2:16 PM on July 19, 2008

The people at the levels that make the "open space" vs "offices" decision look at most two things: how many people can I fit for $x, and they weight that against potential turnover.

And may exempt themselves from that policy anyway.

I've noticed this at my workplace...the executives insisting that the staff will be more productive working in an open floor space are also often the ones who remain tucked in their individual offices.
posted by JaredSeth at 5:21 PM on July 19, 2008

Also anecdotal, but I've worked in open plan offices and had good experiences where I thought productivity was enhanced. The work was highly collaborative so having easy access to co-workers was really great. Everyone had to be respectful of each other in terms of noise and such but, depending on the work, it can be beneficial. All the staff, including the bosses was on the floor, too, so it made access to the managers and bosses much easier.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 6:28 PM on July 19, 2008

Here's some data from Japan, where open office plan is quite common. The Japanese have a proverbial expression that translates as "The nail that sticks up gets hammered down." In a typical large Japanese office, up to a hundred desks are place in an open floor area, facing the desk of a section leader, who faces them all. 1 hammer, so to speak, for every 100 nails.

The Japanese section leader would not think of taking a private office if it were offered to him, as it is a measure of his authority that he can act with impunity in front of everyone who reports to him, and expect whatever communications privacy he needs for phone and verbal communication by merely nodding his head to clear the nearby area temporarily. But, in fact, this is a rare occurrence, as much of his supervision is done through writing, and even for most verbal communications, he expects that by overhearing his conversations, subordinates will know to take the appropriate actions. The fax machine and the computer terminal are still more important business tools than is the telephone in Japan. But even more important, a section leader wouldn't want to be mistaken as a madogiwazoku, or member of "the window-seat tribe," which are older, long term middle managers, given window offices on the perimeter of office floors, serving out in house pre-retirement terms, with very little or no actual work to do, or authority. The loss of respect the madogiwazoku often experience, as subtle resentment from younger workers is often palpable, and they sometimes sit behind their closed office doors, 9 hours a day, cut off from colleagues, isolated, as no Japanese would be, voluntarily.

It's unthinkably rude for a Japanese office worker in such a setting to arrive later than, or leave earlier than his section chief. And the successful section chief is more punctual than a time clock, with just as good a record of attendance. Every one knows his place in such an architectural plan. The hammer is always in his place, and no one wants to stick up, but that is not because of fear of displeasure from the hammer, as such. Instead, there is a certain pride in belonging to such a group, and contributing as others expect of you. The stern approval of the hammer is more paternal than disciplinary; his awareness of your presence, and 99 others, is your assurance that you are needed and wanted in the job you do. Calling attention to yourself by violating social norms is perhaps more embarrassing in such environments, and this may appeal, uniquely, to the Japanese preoccupation with "face." Call it cultural reinforcement through architectural planning.

Many foreign visitors to such offices initially remark on the noise level, but for the Japanese, it is much like a popular restaurant: the pervasive low burble of voices and general office sound creates a kind of invisible privacy, much like the background din in a busy restaurant suggests that it is a popular place, with an urgent demand for its tables. Some Japanese offices even pipe in additional "noise," if the office environment sounds too quiet, as the burble of sound suggests to workers that they, too, should be productive, and not be telling jokes or doing other non-productive activities.
posted by paulsc at 6:28 PM on July 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

I'd think I died and went to heaven if my open plan office could be subdivided. Individual cubicles would be wonderful, but even dividers between teams would help. The noise is bad, but worse is the feeling of having no personal space.

Sorry, that's not data, just an anecdote.
posted by happyturtle at 11:02 AM on July 20, 2008

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