Tom Webster, writing and speaking

Open Plan Offices Make People Unhappy

Added on by Tom Webster.

That's the conclusion of this multi-national study of worker satisfaction  in open plan and closed plan offices.  The study surveyed over 40,000 employees in 303 office buildings in the U.S., Finland, Australia, and Canada, and the results were clear: 58% of workers in low-partitioned cubicles and 59% of employees in high partitioned cubicles were dissatisfied with the level of sound privacy in their workplace.

What I love about this data is how it challenges the conventional wisdom that open plan offices foster productivity. I have not seen any data that demonstrates that open plan offices do any such thing--in fact, there is plenty of other evidence  to the contrary. But that isn't what interests me most about this particular study. 

No, what I found interesting was that the study's authors did not actually attempt to gauge productivity, and focused solely upon employee satisfaction.  When asked why they did not study productivity, the short answer was--it's too hard to do. Traditional "productivity" tests ask employees to engage in simple tasks (like proofreading) to determine their variable level of "output." 

What productivity measures are crap at, however, is measuring how "productive" you are when you engage in creative work, like problem solving. The fact that this recent study of worker satisfaction essentially takes a pass on measuring productivity is therefore not an indictment of this survey, which is very good. Rather, it's a sign that anytime we see these sorts of studies attempt to measure productivity in non-economic terms, it's a hand wave. 

And finally, I've worked in open plan offices, closed offices, and (currently) my kitchen counter. Open plan offices are terrible.  (SOURCE: The Survey Of Tom, N=1)