Are you surreptitiously reading this article while huddled over your computer, shielding your screen from prying eyes? Have you worked in an open office?
A new study by Harvard researchers published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B proves that productivity and effective face-to-face interaction in an open office is down 70 percent compared to a traditional office space. This is just the latest—and most damning—piece of evidence against trendy open office designs.
Previous studies focused on employee surveys to see how workers reacted to open offices. Unsurprisingly, most employees weren’t happy when their bosses removed interior walls and pushed for more “transparency” at work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that employees, desperate for a little privacy, started using big headphones and avoided contact with coworkers and managers while trying to look as busy as possible. While the goal of an open office is to foster a more personal and creative work environment that looks like the interior of a trendy millennial startup in NYC, business leaders need to understand that not every employee works well in an open office—and not every job requires “transparency.” Some workers (and some tasks) require focus and privacy, not beanbag chairs and staring over your desk at Janet in Sales.
The Harvard study took a rigorous approach to investigating productivity. The researchers supplied 150 employees at two anonymous Fortune 500 companies with digital sensors to monitor their workplace interactions before and after their employer switched to an open office layout. The result? The sensors recorded a quantitative drop in face-to-face collaboration and a corresponding 20 to 50 percent increase in e-mails. At the end of the study, executives reported an overall qualitative drop in productivity.
Hopefully this study will finally put the productivity myth of the open office to bed—in its own personal corporate nap couch.