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Open Office Layouts Bad for Productivity and Memory

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In a recent BBC article titled "Why Open Offices Are Bad for Us", Bryan Borzykowski tells the story of two organisations who have moved from open office design to individual offices.  The article references research which states that:

We’re 15% less productive, we have immense trouble concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces; [this] has contributed to a growing backlash against open offices.  

He goes on to talk about the need for quiet concentration, the need for focused work, and the impact of interruptions and distractions in the workplace.

There’s one big reason we’d all love a space with four walls and a door that shuts: focus. The truth is, we can’t multitask and small distractions can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.

Even more damaging, according to the article, is the trend towards hot-desking, where people don't have allocated desk spaces and sit in different locations each day.  Hot desking actually impacts memory because:

We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings, she says.

An article on DeZeen talks about the impact that office design can have on corporate culture.  They reference research by furniture manufacturer Haworth which indicates that:

The critical achievement of workspace design is to integrate the various – and sometimes competing – cultures, values and behaviours of people to meet company goals.

They give examples of workplace design and the cultures which they influence:

  • An office for a "create" culture needs lots of informal working areas and few closed or sheltered spaces
  • Some companies need a more formal office layout to help staff focus on technical problems – this kind of "control" culture needs plenty of individual workspaces
  • Open desks allow workers to have some personal space without creating communication barriers and work well for a "compete" office culture

The article makes a strong point that office design does not create culture - according to Gabor Nagy, research program manager at Haworth:

Problem is, if the an organisation's culture is not like Google's, chances are very high that such design conceptions will backfire: employees hanging out in the game room or playing ping-pong while working will not be seen as creative innovators, but more like folks who are sabotaging their daily work. Thus, these spaces will likely not be used at all.

Harvard Business Review has articles which explore factors that impact office design and the value of giving people choice about their working spaces by providing "Commons and Caves" and the value of autonomy.

Every organization needs the right balance of caves and commons — and what that precise balance is depends on what the organization’s particular goals and challenges are, and more granularly, what the immediate situation of a work team is. 


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