Embrace the Cubicle: Open-Plan Offices Make You Less Productive

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If you’re reading this at work (it’s OK—we won’t tell), chances are you’re sitting in a cubicle. There are probably beige or gray walls obscuring your coworkers from view, and you might be feeling jealous of the employees of trendy companies who get to work in playground atmospheres complete with slides, video games, and espresso bars—and free of walls.

Well, take heart: Studies suggest that workers in open-plan offices actually tend to be less productive, unhappier, and even unhealthier than people who work confined to their own personal spaces.

Why? For one thing, it’s no secret that employees are more productive with fewer distractions. Researchers at Hong Kong Polytechnic University surveyed office workers about environmental factors affecting their work habits. Results showed that sound was one of the most significant factors hindering office productivity.

The three most annoying noises that people said kept them from their work were ringing phones, machines, and conversation. So while an open-plan office can make it easier for you to collaborate with a coworker on a project, your talk about sprints and deadlines may be driving a nearby worker crazy.

Julian Treasure, who is chairman of The Sound Agency and researches how sound affects people psychologically, agrees, claiming that workers are 66 percent less productive in an open-plan office than when left on their own. In addition to being annoying, disruptive noises can affect employees’ wellbeing. The sound level of a noisy office with people in close quarters can reach 80 decibels; a German study found that 65 decibels is the threshold at which the heart rate increases to heart-attack levels.

Another way an open-plan office can affect health adversely is that it tends to increase the likelihood of people getting sick. A national study in Denmark reported that workers in open-plan environments took an average of 62 percent more sick days a year than employees in one-occupant layouts. One predictable explanation is that viruses spread more easily in open offices, but another factor could be that workers’ increased stress levels lowered their immune systems.

At this point, you may be thinking, “OK, so I’ll get a flu shot and wear headphones to block out unwanted noise. I’ll just talk to my deskmates about our project when we need to collaborate.” While proponents of the open-plan office champion the idea of coworkers being able to assist each other more easily, it turns out that scenario only benefits half the participants.

In a study published in Applied Psychology, the people seeking help did perform better at work, but the people giving the help actually performed worse. Scientists determined that alternating between helping others and doing your own work imposes a heavy “cognitive load” because you have to reacquaint yourself with the details of your project each time you return to it.

If you do work in an open-plan office, it’s recommended that you set aside a block of several hours every day when you’re not to be disturbed so you can concentrate on your work without distractions. And if your teammates still try to interrupt, well…just put on the headphones.

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Beth Romanik

A recovering print journalist, Beth Romanik is now a writer and editor for TechWell, StickyMinds, and Better Software magazine. She has worked for several other newspapers, magazines, and websites. Beth is excited about new gadgets and developments in technology, but she'll always have a soft spot for paper and ink.