When is an Open Floor Plan Good for Business?

Part 1 of 3

“Top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking referencing the Coding War Games study.

Many of us find open floor plans and shared workspace unpleasant. The noise, visual distractions, or that particularly pungent lunch can be oppressive. Others love it. The chit chat, bonding, and the ability to get a quick answer to your question just by turning around and saying, “Hey Phil…” can be wonderful. My company is one of the few left with private offices, and we’re quickly moving to open floor. This made me wonder if the quote above is right. Regardless of how we feel about working in an open floor plan, is it good business?

My story

Mostly I was fine in my first open floor plan. Admittedly, there was that poor guy with terrible allergies during cottonwood season — he made me want to tear my ears off. Otherwise I enjoyed it. The job was mind-numbingly routine so the easy chit-chat around the room was a welcome break. Sometimes I wished I could get a quiet space to really crank some work out, but I had limited patience when the managers told us to keep the noise down. People were complaining they couldn’t focus. I’m a deep introvert and I could get my work done just fine. How boring it would be if we all worked in hushed whispers like a library!

Later in my career I minded open floor plans very much. I got my PMP certification, worked in an array of temporary spaces as a consultant, then came back to a large open floor-plan as a Scrum Master. My role demanded I be in the office. Due to underbidding on fixed bid contracts, our projects were on the rocks and over budget, often by a lot. As a very small shop we couldn’t afford that. People there were friendly with good hearts, but often said some hurtful things under stress without realizing it. I had big problems I was trying to manage. I was no longer doing simple repetitive work. If I was going to help our projects succeed I needed to think and I needed to be persuasive. Mostly I sat in a space that was essentially the hallway to the kitchen, with my back to traffic. Near the end I remember beautiful spring mornings driving the hour to work listening to calm feel-good radio plays. I’d park, turn the play off, and spend the next ten minutes telling myself to go inside.

Why did I have such wildly different reactions to essentially the same space? This year the tidal wave of transition to open floor plan got very close to me. I panicked. I’ve had the privilege of an office of my own for a few years. I couldn’t imagine trying to focus without the privacy and freedom from distraction. I researched everything I could find online about whether open floor plan really works, why companies embrace it, and what to do about it.

This is the first of three posts to answer these questions.

When is open floor plan good for business? Does it really work?

For the most part open floor plans perform poorly due to lack of privacy, noise and visual distractions, absenteeism due to increased illness and for some, stress from overstimulation. There’s many articles and studies on this. Links to a few of my favorites below.

So why do companies embrace open floor plan?

Help on demand

What about improved collaboration like the ‘hey Phil’ effect I mention above? There’s a study for that too.

Participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task.

Collaboration and innovation

OK, but many people think open floor plans create a more collaborative and innovative environment, and informal chance encounters improve performance. I’ve certainly had moments where a casual conversation has sparked an idea, but this article implies that there’s no upper limit to this effect. The more chance encounters, the better everyone performs.

Content: More conversations about Phil’s dog

If that’s true, what about my second open floor plan experience? I had lots of chance encounters. Shouldn’t that have made all the projects more successful? A sentence later in the same article gave me a clue. “We don’t measure the content of interactions, but that doesn’t matter. When collisions occur, regardless of their content, improvement typically follows.”

That didn’t seem right. Doesn’t content matter? If I’m having a conversation about Phil’s dog is that just as productive as a deep-dive into capabilities of the tool he runs? Another Harvard Business Review article Who Moved My Cube? reinforced that “employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.” So, more conversations about Phil’s dog.

Millennials love it

The Open Office Trap helped me understand why so many people think open floor plans inspire collaboration and innovation. The article mentions a review of over one hundred studies found that open floor plan can create a “sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise.” From another 2012 study on younger workers: “open space resulted in a sense of camaraderie; they valued the time spent socializing with coworkers, whom they often saw as friends.” and “young employees found certain types of noises, such as conversations and laughter, just as distracting as their older counterparts did.” Millennials find open floor plan just as distracting as older workers, they just enjoy it more.

That reminds me of my first open-office experience. I certainly felt more connection to my co-workers. For some of us, camaraderie feels like productivity. We can look back on a satisfying day of happy connection and bonding and feel like there was a lot of productive collaboration when, in fact, the distractions and lack of privacy damage “attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.”

This also gave me another clue about why I liked my first open floor plan job, and hated my most recent. My first job required very little real focus or attention. I was doing what Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World calls “Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style task, often performed while distracted.” That first job didn’t require much thought or attention, so distractions weren’t really a problem for my productivity.

Data driven decisions and the metrics black hole

Newport coins the phrase “metrics black hole” to describe how the more complex knowledge work is, the harder it becomes to measure the value of a single person’s work. As companies push to make data-driven business decisions they need to weigh things that are easy to measure against things that are difficult. When considering open floor plan, measuring the financial value of productivity is difficult. Measuring the cost savings of reduced facilities and floorspace needs is easy and compelling. Geoffrey James in this LinkedIn post tries to create a metrics argument for productivity, but that could be very difficult to ‘sell’ in a boardroom or senior leadership meeting against data on big cost savings.

Wow. So does all this mean private offices are the perfect working environment and anyone working in an open floor plan is doomed to distraction and poor productivity? I don’t completely agree with Newport when he calls open office “depth-destroying”. I know from first-hand experience it can be, but a little bit of thought, planning, and modest investment can make all the difference.

The key seems to be about providing autonomy and balance between focus work and collaborative work. The best solution combines ideas from Who Moved My Cube? “The most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers while also providing sufficient privacy that people don’t fear being overheard or interrupted. In addition, they reinforce permission to convene and speak freely.” with the recommendation that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed. Newport proposes “soundproofed offices connected to large common areas” to support innovation through “both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking”. I agree that this architecture will work, but quiet focus space doesn’t have to be a traditional personal office. Regardless of the core arrangement, information workers should have space and permission for:

  1. Quiet distraction-free focus for several hours
  2. Deep collaboration in privacy
  3. Informal casual chance encounters

Next: How workers can make open floor plans more productive.



The Open-Office Trap

How to Stay Productive In an Open Working Environment

Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

Who Moved my Cube?


Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices

The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control

Stress and open-office noise

The Privacy Crisis: Taking a Toll on Employee Engagement

Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices–a national cross sectional questionnaire survey.

Privacy at Work: Architectural Correlates of Job Satisfaction and Job Performance