Why management will not change their open office layouts

The first study of how open offices affect communication has been conducted, and the results should not be that surprising. Open offices negatively impact productivity, and we’ve known that for a very long time.

Despite now having evidence that open offices hinder communication, management won’t change their open offices for two reasons:

  1. You can pack more people into a smaller space
  2. You can micromanage anyone you want, whenever you want

If you think this is inaccurate, consider the following thought experiment:

Imagine moving into a new office where in the center there are open tables for collaboration, and along the edges every employee has their own private office. Each office is designed such that employees can lock their door, preventing you from seeing or hearing what they are doing.

Now ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What percentage of your employees will a) Always use the open tables b) Always work in their private office c) use a mix of the open tables and their private office?
  2. Do you expect the average productivity (i.e., output that benefited the company directly) to increase, decrease, or stay the same?
  3. What percentage change would you expect in rent between the open office and mixed open/private office?
  4. If all of the people you manage always work in their private offices, what is a traditional manager’s contribution to the organization?

Here are my answers to these questions:

For #1, I think you’re going to see something like a Gaussian distribution of preference, with a few people who are always working in the open, a few who are always in their office, and the majority favoring one extreme or the other.

For #2, I think you’d see a drastic increase in average productivity. You can read Deep Work and Quiet for explanations of this phenomenon.

For #3, A dramatic increase in rent is easy to imagine. Even a relatively modest private office is still around 100 square feet, and while rent prices vary quite a bit, $25 per square foot per month is not unreasonable. Assuming 100 square feet per employee at $25 per square feet, then you’re looking at $2,500 per month per-employee, or $30,000 extra per-employee per year. At 100 employees that’s $3,000,000 just so that each employee has the option to retreat into their own private office if they feel it will boost their productivity.

For #4, If your job is to “manage people”, but those people work all day quietly in their private offices where you can’t see or hear them, you have significantly less value as a traditional “manager”. This should not come as a shock, as the very idea of “management” is rooted in an age of factory workers, and knowledge workers don’t need “management” in the traditional sense. If you are unfamiliar with the phrase “knowledge worker”, I recommend reading The Effective Executive.

If all of this sounds irrational to you, I’ll offer this for further consideration:

Is there any precedent for the idea of maximizing productivity by having a group of knowledge workers toiling away independently in their private offices with little-to-no managerial oversight? Yes there is: Academia. The only difference between academia and corporations is that corporations operate under the constraints imposed by a free market economy rather than an academic institution.

Assuming you believe the evidence, what then is the solution to the problems caused by open offices? While potential solutions will have to fit your organizational constraints, granting employees the freedom to work from wherever they are most productive is a good place to start. Where people work should be irrelevant if productivity is your primary concern, and I believe we can all agree that open offices are not optimally productive environments for everyone.

My advice is to embrace the evidence and start finding ways to mitigate the negative impacts of an open office. Have the courage to forward the study to your employees, and hold a meeting to gather their feedback. At least they’ll know you care enough to ask their opinion, even if it’s impractical to make any immediate changes. There may be subtle adjustments in behavior that will have a large positive impact, but you won’t find out what those are unless you start a dialogue.

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