A Better Workplace

Open offices kill productivity, so what can we do to change it?

When I was about to graduate, I had a big life decision to make. I could have pursued a career in Electrical Engineering per my degree. Then I learned more about what actual engineers did most of the day and was certain I could never become a “cubicle monkey”.

That was perhaps not the fairest assessment of the engineering profession. I know better now. In my gut though, I knew I needed something more than being consigned to a cubicle for hours on end.

Rarely do you find me at a desk. Even when I was an active developer, I never spent much time in a cubicle. I was on site with customers helping them build apps using our software. Then I noticed a subtle change in the offices I visited around the Bay Area. In the place of rows of solitary gray cubicles was…nothing.

Ok, maybe not nothing. But the walls were gone. Instead there were rows of desks totally exposed. It was noticeably louder as well with the clacking of keyboards, the phones ringing, and the people chatting in the spaces between rows. It was livelier.

It was a nice change of pace at first. Then I would get more taps on the shoulder to help. The drone of sounds all round me made thinking difficult if not impossible. It took longer to finish tasks. I would come home feeling more exhausted. To get through the day, I started wearing headphones to block out the noise, but the distractions still continued.

All those years ago, I thought avoiding cubicle life was the way to go. Little did I know that open offices were even worse, and now they are everywhere. Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace reported that 70% of U.S. workplaces employ open office plans.

When the first offices were created, all work was done in the open. The advent of the first cubicle in the 60’s, the Action Office by Herman Miller, was actually a reaction to what was deemed inefficient open office environments. The design quickly took hold and billions of dollars were spent installing cubicle farms.

We have now come full-circle to thoroughly vilifying cubicles. The idea behind open offices seems sound in theory. Tear down the walls and you foster more collaboration and innovation. Instead the opposite is true. Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban recently studied the effects of employees that moved from cubicles to open offices and found:

  • 73 percent less time in face-to-face interactions
  • 67 percent more time on email
  • 75 percent more time on instant messenger

The nature of collaboration completely changes. Face-to-face interactions decreased 70% in favor of online channels, contradicting the very reason companies use to justify open offices. Other studies have observed additional detrimental effects:

  • Workers well-being dropped 32% and productivity decreased by 15%
  • Workers in two-person offices took 50% more sick leave than those in single offices
  • Workers in fully open offices took absences an average of 62% more often
  • People in noisy environments attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment, becoming less motivated and less creative

The only real benefit therefore of open offices are lower real estate costs. In comparing the costs of packing in 3 to 5 times more employees per square foot versus the now demonstrated productivity losses, this strategy has actually backfired:

Companies have spent billions of dollars to create these supposedly-collaborative workplaces and the net effect has been for those same companies to suffer billions of dollars in lost productivity. — Geoffrey James

Are companies going to switch gears and go back to cubicles or go the next step towards fully private offices? That is highly unlikely given most companies looking to further reduce capital costs. At the same time though, they are beginning to realize the workspace environment has a very real impact on financial performance and customer satisfaction.

Leading organizations are employing three strategies to create better workspaces that balance productivity and collaborative in-person experiences:

  • Activity-Based Workspaces — Companies are reworking their open offices towards more mixed use forms that reflect the activities workers are engaged in. DBS Bank employed this idea when developing their Joyspaces initiative which combines open spaces with quiet areas giving employees the freedom to find a space that matches their work mode.
  • Work from Home Programs — Realizing the enormous costs and productivity loss incurred in commuting, companies are doubling down on work from home and remote worker programs. By leveraging online collaboration tools, employees can stay connected while having space to focus on tasks requiring greater concentration.
  • Enhancing Team Diversity — Even more so that the physical space, the biggest factor in enhancing satisfaction, productivity, and creativity in the workplace is encouraging more diverse teams. Studies continue to clearly show that diverse workplaces have lower turnover, higher financial returns, and provide a wider pool of skilled talent to draw upon.

The last point on diversity is particularly important when it comes to IT teams. The number of women in tech is still abysmally low compared to other industries. Given that more and more jobs are shifting to technical roles, it is critical to provide support structures that make it easier for women to enter and thrive in IT and software developer roles.

That requires creating more welcoming and inviting workspaces. When Google measured the effectiveness of teams, one of the things that was a clear differentiator were teams that fostered a feeling of psychological safety. Creating a safe space is hard though if you are the only woman or minority on a non-diverse team.

That is why DEV.BIZ.OPS supports groups and events that support diversity like the Women Who Code Connect Asia conference in Singapore. Through DEV.BIZ.OPS and the work of our partners, we will continue to support events and programs that encourage women and minorities to pursue technical careers. Because if we can make a dent in comments like these, we are one step closer to creating awesome workplaces for all.

What are your thoughts about open office workspaces? What are some ways your company has created a collaborative and productive work environment?

What are some specific examples of the calculations human “computers” did for the Mercury space program?


Fascinating view into the time when people were the “computers”…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s