The problem with open offices

From The Open-Office Trap by Maria Konnikova:

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared.

Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness.

(1) Like many companies, we increased the openness of Seeking Alpha’s office over time, because removing closed rooms made it lighter, less hierarchical, and less silo-ed.
(2) But the risk that we’ve reduced work effectiveness and happiness worries me. See Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles?
(3) Can you get the best of both worlds? See The two key elements in WeWork’s better office environment.

7 thoughts on “The problem with open offices

  1. David,

    I used to be a big advocate of open offices. I am a Zen master when it comes to blocking out distractions and I figured most people could get used to being productive in an open office just like I can be. But, in time I have realized that most people are really not correctly wired to be productive in an open environment.

    One compromise solution is to have a large enough common area to be able to have a daily team meeting with the entire team, encouraging participation by all. This connects people and makes them aware of how the different pieces work together.

    Either way, I think it’s hard to escape the trade-offs here.

  2. Hi David,

    From my experience, the most productive environments host engineers in rooms that have doors, 2 to 4 people in a room. It is also great to have long corridors where people meet on their way to the water cooler.



  3. David –

    I think the key to making our open office as productive and happy as possible is by enabling more small, shared, closed spaces where employees can retreat to when they need to have private conversations, talk on the phone, or just get some quite focused time to get a key project done.


  4. Pingback: Office design: two tips to get seating right | A Founder's Notebook

  5. Pingback: Startup office design: Time to reconsider cubicles? | A Founder's Notebook

  6. Pingback: The two key elements in WeWork’s better office environment | A Founder's Notebook

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