The Open-Concept Dilemma

Rows of long, rectangular desks feature a who’s who of senior managers amid junior staff; marketing departments are seated next to IT and sales staff are seen side-by-side with the creative team; oversized windows let in enough light to blur the boundaries between indoor and outdoor; and quirky personal objects are scattered in the midst for all to see. In this environment sans walls, a dull background noise is the proverbial soundtrack of the day. Long gone is the cubicle — the open concept office has become the norm for a full 70% of today’s workers. Designed for collaboration and teamwork, and also conveniently cheaper than closed offices, open offices are popular with managers. But are they productive?

Surprisingly, the answer is no. Research out of the University of Sydney by Professor Richard de Dear and PhD candidate Jungsoo Kim found that among more than 42,000 office workers across the United States, Finland, Canada and Australia surveyed, lost productivity due to noise and a lack of privacy doubled in open-concept offices as opposed to private offices. And a shocker: the tasks most affected by noise disruption were “tasks requiring complex verbal processes” rather than simple or more routine tasks. In a cruel twist, researchers also found that even increased levels of collaboration present in open-concept offices couldn’t offset this loss of productivity.

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