Why your office is killing your productivity (and how to fix it)

Employees in open plan offices are significantly less satisfied, according to research. They are also less productive. This article explains why this is and what you can do about it.

Cartoon of people in a crowded noisy office

The open plan modern office could be killing your productivity, reckons The Atlantic’s Julie Beck.

Employees in open plan offices are significantly less satisfied, according to research. Among the problems:

  • Lack of privacy, both physical and psychological.
  • Noise. It’s distracting and hurts creativity, mathematical ability and productivity.
  • Lack of sleep. Employees without windows get 47 minutes less sleep on average.
  • Bad lighting which encourages bad behaviour (enhanced ‘perceptions of aggression and sexiness’).

Peopleware matters

She’s not alone. Peopleware highlighted the problem. ‘Today’s modular cubicle is a masterpiece of compromise: it gives you no meaningful privacy and yet it still manages to make you feel isolated,’ say the authors. Instead, they advocate humane offices:

  • Not too enclosed, not too open
  • Have windows and natural light
  • Include indoor and outdoor communal space
  • Give people a door they can shut
  • Encourage flow and concentration
  • Eliminate needless interruptions like pagers or alarms

Optimal office optimisation

I’m a great believer in data-driven optimisation. Planet Money explains how UPS has been able to increase the number of deliveries its drivers make each day by making routine tasks more efficient. I take this approach myself (see How to do a time and motion study to make real change).

Much of the problem comes from companies optimising the wrong things. Here are some of the most common management fallacies:

  • Rent is expensive, so let’s give everyone less space. Increasing productivity, motivation and recruitment with a great office can greatly outweigh the cost of rent. Alternatively, you can just let more people work from home and save money that way.
  • We have to give everyone the same environment or they’ll complain. I remember visiting Maxis’s then-new offices in Walnut Creek years ago and all the cube farms were clustered in the middle of the floor so nobody got a window view. It’s better to let people choose what they want or move people around regularly.
  • Hot-desking is the way of the future. Wrong-ish. People like to feel comfortable in their own space so while this is efficient for people who aren’t often in the office, you need to give people a range of choices or ways to customise their workspace, such as lockable trolleys.
  • Open plan equals open communication. No. It equals headphones for people who want to concentrate and constant disruption for everyone else. Give people lots of meeting space to cut the noise and lots of tools to encourage other forms of communication.

In addition, we have written a number of articles about creating a productive workplace:

Image from the original Atlantic article.

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