For years, open office design was promoted as the future of the workplace. The concept of the open office is pretty straightforward. By removing barriers and creating open spaces with workstations located in accessible cubicles, open office design would promote better interaction and information exchange among workers. Today, many employers are rethinking the open office.
You Might Be Better Off at the Corner Coffee Shop?
In a recent article published in the Harvard Business Review, David Burkus makes a surprising argument against the open office. He suggests that many people can focus better in a coffee house than they can in an open office environment. He begins by recounting the story of an interviewer who once told him that he maintained a cubicle in a coworking facility. The interviewer said that this gave him an alternative work space in which he could concentrate without constant distractions. On the surface, these scenarios don’t seem to make sense. Coworking cubicles follow an open office design. A coffee shop is certainly an open, public space. Why should these venues be more conducive to focused work than one’s own open office cubicle? Burkus goes on to cite research that both supports and explains the seeming contradictions.
Employee Disenchantment with the Open Office
Burkus says past research shows employees tend to have some specific complaints about open office environments. Topping the list is the noise level that is typical in large workrooms filled with cubicles. The second most frequent complaint is the lack of sound privacy. Essentially, this means it is difficult to hold a private conversation. Lack of visual privacy comes in a distant third on a list of sources of employee dissatisfaction with open offices.
Look Who’s Talking
Burkus cites recent studies that measured the ability to think creatively in environments with various sound levels. A project headed by Ravi Mehta of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaigne campus found that silence did not particularly facilitate creative thought. However, a background noise level of about 70 decibels correlated with higher creativity scores on standard tests. This is roughly the noise level you expect in a typical coffee shop.
Other studies indicate that the ability to focus is linked more to the quality of background noise than to its presence as such. In the open office, there is constant back-and-forth chatter as colleagues discuss their work. It’s also inevitable that fellow employees will interrupt you from time to time.
Why the Coffee Shop Makes Sense
Burkus cautions that it is too soon to draw definitive conclusions. However, he does offer an explanation that supports the coffee shop notion. In the conventional open office, much of the background conversation may be of interest. It can be difficult to ignore. It is even harder to ignore a colleague who wants your attention. It seems that some background noise is helpful when it comes to maintaining focus. Interruptions and distractions are not. In a coffee shop, you can be sitting at a table in a room with an appropriate level of sound. However, the sounds are mostly just irrelevant noise. You are not likely to be interrupted. Taken together, these factors suggest the idea that a coffee shop may indeed be a more productive work environment than the open office.