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A challenge to the open concept office.

We at Merlion Solutions seek to provide the best environment for our associates and software developers. While researching office environment options we compiled the following research about “open concept” offices which we would like to share. As researchers continue to look into the effects of an “open concept” office, the touted benefits of the open concept office become more and more dubious. Two recent studies have identified some issues with the open concept office which explain why communication and productivity actually decrease in the open concept office. The first issue is noise. Particularly the kind of noise generated in an open concept office environment which is conversation or “meaningful” noise. The second issue is the frustration of the human psychological need for privacy, causing workers to retreat from each other. 

Open Concept Office.

What is an “open concept” office? What are the benefits over the traditional style office this new layout was supposed to bring? An open concept office typically means that the majority of employees are all working in one large room with little to no physical barriers between workers. The purpose of removing physical barriers such as building, or cubicle walls is to foster more face-to-face communication between employees. The benefit of increasing worker communication is the improvement of collective intelligence—a form of distributed intelligence that arises from the social interaction of individuals and that predicts, more so than the intelligence of individual members, a group’s general ability to perform a wide variety of tasks.

Noise.

A Japanese study found that meaningful noise such as conversations to have a stronger negative impact on performance than meaningless noise alone. The experiments were based on the “odd-ball” test. In the “odd-ball” test subjects are tasked with detecting rare target events hidden in a series of repetitive events. An example of this test would be watching a green square and pressing a button when it turns red. Another example would be listening for a high-pitched tone among mundane sounds. During these tests the subject’s brain waves were measured by an electroencephalograph to determine the latency between stimulus and neural response. After a statistical analysis of the observations it was found that selective attention to cognitive tasks was influenced by the degree of meaningfulness of the noise. Therefore, in an open concept office those conversations are likely disrupting the team’s productivity.

Privacy.

A new study from Harvard found that when business switched from traditional to open concept offices, face-to-face interactions between employees dropped as much as 70%. They also found that productivity was soon to follow the decrease in interaction. Researchers used Sociometric badges, worn by employees of businesses both before and after changing to an open concept office. Researchers used the badges to measure the change in face-to-face communication.

Sociometric Badge

While the study focuses on the empirical effects of switching from a traditional office concept to an open concept, the researchers offer a few possible factors to explain the empirical effects they observed based on similar studies done in the past. Their findings were consistent with the idea that privacy is connected with productivity. Reducing privacy results in the reduction of productivity. The study did find that electronic communication among employees in the open concept office increased. However, overall communication decreased. As communication falters, so does the collective intelligence of the office. Leaving your team less capable to tackle the day to day business issues.

            When choosing an office environment be sure to keep in mind the various factors that might affect your employees. Avoid the trappings of following what might be trendy. While the open concept office remains a popular choice. We at Merlion Solutions felt it would be too distracting and harmful to important communication between our employees.

Lévy P.1997Collective intelligence. New York, NY: Plenum/Harper Collins.

Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration373Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2017.0239

Tamesue, Takahiro. “Effects of Meaningful or Meaningless Noise on Psychological Impression for Annoyance and Selective Attentio to Stimuli during Intellectual Task.” Acoustical Society of America, 1 Dec. 2016.

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