How to improve productivity when working in open office spaces


Open office spaces are very popular these days and you see them being used by a lot of companies. As so many of us work in open office, I was curious how this affects both personal and company productivity and what it does with human interactions.

Potential advantages of open office spaces

Before doing some research on the topic, I would say there are definitely some advantages to open work spaces. As you have a better chance of running into each other, I would expect a higher degree of cooperation and running into colleagues one would normally not have a chat with. Disadvantages I myself sometimes run into, is the fact that it can get noisy. My work environment luckily still has some cubicles where you can temporarily sit, which I then use to get something done which requires a high level of concentration. However, I could even imagine that a noisy environment is even beneficial for the more extraverted persons to get work done, as they require more stimuli to get into a state of flow.

So far on my take on the topic. Let’s do some more research 😊.

Quick Google search on open office spaces

When I perform a general Google search on research of open office spaces, the results primarily focus on the negative aspects. See my search results in the screenshot below.

As you can see, a lot of Google search results are about the negative consequences of open office spaces. Most of the articles are based on this research in 2018, done by Bernstein and Turban, funded by Harvard Business school. The nice thing is, the full research is available online, so I definitely recommend to read it if you have some spare time.

How did they perform their study on human interaction?

What’s really cool (risking sounding nerdy here 😉) is that they used biometric devices to actually measure the interactions between people. This as opposed to surveys of people, which measures the perception of the people working in open office spaces. Therefore, this is actually a less biased method for doing research as it bypasses the shortcomings that we inevitably have in forming our perceptions.

Effects of open office spaces on productivity

Here’s a quick list with the effects that were claimed in the research paper mentioned above:

  • The volume of face-to-face interactions actually decreased (by 72%!), whereas you actually would expect the opposite;
  • People start e-mailing more (by 56%);
  • Increase in Instant Messaging (by ~70%)
  • People start wearing headphones to shut the noise out (only mentioned qualitatively)

The metrics above are quite objectively measured – although more research is still needed. Moreover, they qualitatively assessed what these outcomes would do with productivity, by interviewing management on how they’ve experienced the performance after introduction of open work spaces. The conclusion was that the effects noted above had a negative effect on productivity. However, it is important to note that this last conclusion was not based (yet) on quantitative research.

Why and when were open offices invented

Open offices already exist for a long time, dating back to the 17th century. So it is not new. However, it got re-invented partially to either realize cost savings or to maximize the utility of the rooms (basically the same thing). The other part is related to the tech companies who wanted to disrupt the status quo at the beginning of the 21st century with hip new offices.

At the time, people wanted to switch to cubicles because of the noise and lack of privacy. Also, the open spaces at the time were not designed very inspirational.

Unfortunately, the cubicle type of office suffered from the same problem. That’s why the open office got re-introduced, but then with a more inspirational design. This is, generally speaking, one of the bigger advantages of open offices.

The truth of the matter is that open offices and cubicles (this type of design is actually called “action offices” often were and are badly copied. So, for example, in open offices noise dampening is essential in picking the right materials for the job. However, this is not always applied.

For more background, I definitely recommend watching the movie below:

How to work effectively in open office spaces and increase productivity

There are several tips you can use to reduce the negative aspects of open office spaces:

  1. Use activity based working wisely. It definitely is advisable to sit in a smaller cubicle when you need to do tasks you need to focus on.
  2. Listen to your own music, or use noise canceling headphones.
  3. Agree a code of conduct in open offices.

Well, this was the article for this week. Hope you liked it. If so, I’d to see you back next week. Don’t forget to like this article and subscribe to Facebook or the newsletter for more great content!

Sources and further reading:

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