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Do open-plan offices decrease productivity?

How can workplace design affect productivity?
How can workplace design affect productivity?

A new study by design firm Gensler shows that open-plan offices do not work. Many businesses made the change to to increase communication, employee engagement and creativity through open-plan offices, but this new study shows that many workers cannot focus.

Employers are constantly struggling to figure out how to make employees happy, increase workplace productivity, and save on costs. More and more companies have looked for solutions in workplace design strategies, and according to the International Management Facility Association, 70 percent of U.S. employees now work in open-plan offices. 

One of the main advantages to an open-plan design is that it cuts down building costs and increases the use of space. Rather than cramming workers in tiny walled offices, an open-plan utilizes the same area in a less constricting and claustrophobic way.

Proponents also say that in a digital age, an open-plan office allows for more face-to-face collaboration, encourages creativity and increases employee satisfaction through social connections. A 1996 research study by the University of Southern California found that a collaborative environment actually increased productivity. 

In manufacturing jobs, an open-plan office allows employees to work 4.4 times faster. With statistics like that, it’s no surprise Facebook is planning a Frank Gehry-designed 100,000 square feet open-plan office in New York.

However, a new study by design firm Gensler shows that open-plan offices are actually decreasing productivity. Their 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey found that three out of four workers are “struggling to work effectively” because of difficulty focusing, resulting in longer hours to complete tasks. Compared with their 2008 survey, Gensler found that “workplace effectiveness” has decreased by six percent.

“Many of the open-plan environments today are really designed to encourage collaboration, and those that only foster collaboration at the expense of focus are not as effective," said Janet Pogue, the head of Gensler’s study, AirTalk.

But how does compare with other statistics that have advocated open-plan offices?

“If you want people to learn from each other, then collaboration makes a difference," said University of Southern California Information Systems Professor Ann Majchrzak. "If you want people to learn individually, then collaboration gets in the way.”

Majchrzak is the author of the highly-cited 1996 study on open-plan workplaces. She says that her study focused on manufacturing facilities, not office jobs.

“Once this was published, very quickly it seemed to get a lot attention,” said Majchrzak. “So I needed to encourage a lot of CEOs who were looking at it to make sure that they understood this was only if the department was focused on full-process."

Majchrzak mentioned that her study got over-applied.  

“It became such that CEOs would say, ‘Well, here’s proof that an open floor plan is helpful,’ and in fact, an open floor plan is helpful but under certain contexts,” said Majchrzak.

Dina from Mar Vista told AirTalk that in her real estate office, “That open bull pen really creates a lack of focus because there’s a lot of talking that takes a place, a lot of snooping even that takes place from one person’s desk to the next and a lot of gossiping.”

To block out noise, many employees wear headphones, including staff here at KPCC (listening to our own programming, of course). Larry Mantle shared on-air about this station’s slow adjustment to balancing private space and approachability.

Tyler from Santa Monica likes that his office has private spaces and open ones. In his private office, he’s able to focus on his work, but the open space allows people to joke around with each other, making the workplace more relaxing.

Pogue said that if three out of four workers are not happy with their office floor plan, it also means that one in four are in an optimal workplace. Pogue believes that if an office can prioritize focus and collaboration, then employees will have higher job satisfaction and be more innovative and creative.

According to a statement by Gensler’s co-Chief Executive Officer Diane Hoskins, “Analysis of findings from our 2013 study confirms that employees who can effectively focus are 57 percent more able to collaborate, 88 percent more able to learn, and 42 percent more able to socialize in their workplace than their peers who are unable to focus. They are more satisfied with their jobs, more satisfied with their workplaces, and see themselves as higher performing.”

Isabel, a speech therapist in Beaumont, called AirTalk to discuss how she benefited from the open-floor plan. “I was in the same open-classroom with a psychologist and a resource teacher aide, and it just really worked well with collaborating…We were able to put our heads together and just come up with really awesome solutions,” she said. “We have a dream team together in the room.”

AirTalk discussed how the pros and cons of an open-floor plan are not that simple. Majchrzak said that employers probably like to see people working. Listeners mentioned how an introverted or extroverted personality affects an employee’s preference and how the size of the company also affects focus.

Do you work in an open-plan office? Do you have trouble focusing? What’s the balance between collaboration and personal space? Is productivity actually decreasing? How important is workplace design? What works and what doesn’t? What would you like to change?

Janet Pogue, Principal in Gensler’s Workplace Practice; leader of Gensler’s “2013 U.S. Workplace Survey”

Ann Majchrzak, Professor of Information Systems at USC’s Marshall School of Business, author of the highly cited 1996 workplace study “Breaking the Functional Mind-Set in Process Organization”

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