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July 27, 2018

Open Offices Kill Productivity

Visit any public venue - restaurant, library, food court - before it fills up with people.

Where do the first people sit?

They instinctively choose the seating with the most 'protection'. They will sit next to a wall or in spots where they can survey oncoming traffic. They will sit in the most secluded and private areas, away from the attention of others.

What they won't do is sit directly in the center of the empty venue. This is human nature.

There is a reason for this, as I'm sure you've gathered. People instinctively want to master their domain, blend in and avoid sneak attacks. As humans evolved in the plains of Africa, these traits would help keep you alive.

Our DNA still wants us to behave in ways to avoid sneaky lion attacks. This is all happening on autopilot but the physical implications still surface. Our stress hormones rise when we are seated in a vulnerable position and hear distracting sounds.

Open office configurations tend to leave workers exposed. The persistent 'threat' of getting attacked from behind or attracting unwanted attention within an open concept environment means that worker stress levels are continuously elevated. This is neither good for health nor productivity.

Workers in open concept offices will do whatever they can to close themselves off from the outside world to add a layer of protection. We've all seen the guy sitting at his computer with big headphones. I've known others to configure plants and furniture to form makeshift barriers.

Open concept offices don't only kill productivity by triggering our basic instincts. The sheer distraction - regardless of hormonal response - makes it difficult to concentrate and actually reduces worker collaboration.

When every conversation feels like a broadcast, we are more likely to use messaging apps and email to talk with the person 5 feet away. Alternatively, people stop communicating altogether. Of course, there will still be the few who don't care about who they distract and who knows all their business. But it only takes a few to create a mass suspension of work until the conversation ends.

All this might sound like common sense. So why do executives - who incidentally often keep their offices - preach something that doesn't makes intuitive sense? Don't let the 'collaboration' or 'productivity' argument sway you. Since when have intangible benefits been sufficient to make the business case for million dollar projects?

The concept of open offices became universally preferred because of money. Pure and simple: you can cram more people into an open office layout.

There you have it. There is plenty of research to support my views. So the next time some executive claims to be revolutionizing the office environment for the sake of productivity, I will call them out on their bullshit.

1 comment:

  1. "As humans evolved in the plains of Africa, these traits would help keep you alive." Quite an assumption, because these traits also get humans killed; for example, the "blender-in'r" is generally more passive than the dominant extrovert who ends up "Hitlering" the group. I believe you are cherry-picking common observations.


    "Our DNA still wants us to behave in ways to avoid sneaky lion attacks.": Wow - massive assumptions, that DNA is your main driver and "you" are just the passenger who doesn't really make independent choices. The fact is that YOU can be more than the sum of your DNA, so why assume otherwise until proven otherwise?

    Some people really want privacy. Some people really want publicity. Some people thrive among groups. Some people are exhausted by groups. Yet, your conclusion is that "Open Offices" kill productivity. Perhaps, a specific job requirement ought to be considered in order to define what productivity means in that environment, rather than just claiming we can somehow not trigger our "non-productive" DNA by having private offices? How is it, given this article's assertions, that DNA can be "fooled"?


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