While the recent trend toward open offices is often explained as necessary to inspire collaboration, research is showing that the benefits of open office design for collaboration are typically offset by myriad distractions and possibly even health effects due to excess noise.
In short, the open office concept is mostly a failure.
In 2005, Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear from the University of Sydney conducted a study using data on office environments from the industry standard of work environment research, the Post-Occupancy Evaluation (POE) database at the University of California at Berkeley. Since its inception in 2000, the POE has become one of the most widely used assessments of office space. (It’s even utilized for LEED-certification assessments.) Its widespread use has resulted in a massive amount of data for researchers.
Kim and de Dear selected a small subset of the data based on office building categories, which was still quite massive: 42,764 observations collected from 303 office buildings. They classified each building into one of five categories, ranging from enclosed private offices to open offices with no partitions, and then compared satisfaction levels across categories on a variety of dimensions such as noise level, sound privacy, ease of interaction, comfort of furnishing, air quality, temperature and even the amount of light.
Results Showed the Open Office Concept Isn't Working
Unsurprisingly, they found that enclosed private offices had the overall highest satisfaction rate and that open office plans had the lowest, one of its many disadvantages. But it was when they looked at individual dimensions that they found a few surprises. The biggest differences between private offices and open-plan offices were in dimensions such as visual privacy, sound privacy, amount of space and noise level. A lack of sound privacy received the most negative responses from employees in open offices. In addition, between 25 and 30% of employees in open-plan offices were dissatisfied with the level of noise in their workplace. However, satisfaction with ease of interaction was no higher in open offices than in private offices.
While noise was a problem, the greater noise level didn’t appear to be from all of the collective collaboration buzzing around the open room. The researchers then took their analysis one step further, using regression to calculate how important each dimension was to employees’ overall satisfaction. One of the dimensions most strongly related to overall satisfaction was ease of interaction, despite the fact that it was judged to be no better or worse in open office plans than in private offices. In other words, the desire for more collaboration among employees was shared by all, but those in open office plans may not have found it to be worth all of the stress and distraction from the bombardment of noise. It really makes you rethink the open office's overall pros and cons.
Inside the lab, Gary Evans and Dana Johnson of Cornell University found the same effect of open office noise on stress. Forty female clerical workers responded to their advertisement requesting volunteers to participate in a research project on computer workstation equipment. (Some men responded to the advertisement, but because the majority turned out to be women, the researchers decided to limit the study to women to control for possible gender differences.) Each woman was randomly assigned to one of two conditions: a quiet office or a noisy office. Each woman participated in two three-hour-long sessions — one to set a baseline, and the other for the experiment itself. During the experimental session, the women were asked to type text from an aviation safety manual into a computer at what would be a normal, relaxed pace for them. The women were told that the researchers were not monitoring their performance (although the researchers actually were).
The women in the noisy office condition were asked to type while low-level sounds simulated an actual open office (ringing phones, typing sounds, and drawers being opened and closed), while the women in the quiet condition were not. As would be realistic in any office environment, all of the women were interrupted every twenty-five minutes and asked to complete quick tasks. The researchers tracked their typing performance and also observed how often the women in either condition made adjustments to their workstation. (Making regular ergonomic changes to posture and workstations has been shown to reduce the risk of musculoskeletal diseases.)
After the session, researchers also measured the epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol levels of the women to get accurate markers of stress. Lastly, all participants were given a variety of puzzles (some solvable and some unsolvable) and told to work on one puzzle at a time until they either solved it or decided that it couldn’t be solved. Then they could go on to the next one if time allowed.
The participants in both conditions averaged the same levels of performance, and neither group reported feeling any more stressed than the other at the end of the experimental session, but their epinephrine levels suggested that the noisy environment did cause significant stress. In addition, the women in the noisy condition made significantly fewer changes to their workstation, suggesting that the noisy environment was negatively affecting their future health.
Moreover, the women in the noisy condition made significantly fewer attempts to solve the puzzles, indicative of decreased motivation after exposure to the noisy environment. Evans and Johnson’s findings suggest that immediate performance might not be dampened by an open office environment, but that increased stress, decreased motivation, and illness might accumulate to reduce overall productivity later on.
The research seems to suggest that open offices are not the engines of collaboration they are often made out to be. While this may be true, a better solution to the debate may simply be that employees need the ability to find what works best for them, for the team, and for the company.