You may have seen the provocative article published in Fast Company, “Here’s the Final Nail in the Coffin of Open Plan Offices” by Libby Sander, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Bond University. The Washington Post picked up the story too.

Studies cited seem to justify hatred of the open plan. Notably, "…an innovative new study has found that employees in open plan offices spend 73% less time in face-to-face interactions. Email and messaging use shot up by over 67%, ...productivity declined due to a substitution of email for F2F." The implication that sacrificing privacy improves neither collaboration nor productivity is the final nail.

Should we concede failure and bury the open plan once and for all? Not so fast. Close reading of source material reveals the real problem with open plan, and it's not the lack of private offices.

First, the main study examined controlled transitions from bounded workstations to boundaryless bench-style seating. Enclosed office environments were not examined. Data suggest that heightened exposure upon removal of physical boundaries drove people to retreat and avoid further stimulation.  A low-grade fear of people sneaking up behind you or the extra-annoying distraction of partially intelligible conversation really does make it hard to think. Ironically, when you're in flow, such distractions and vulnerabilities recede but you can't get to flow if you're distracted and vulnerable.

It seems obvious that design solutions must allow humans to feel protected and secure so they can concentrate;  visual privacy while seated, smaller neighborhoods with boundaries, no circulation behind exposed chairs, opportunities to be alone.

Productivity questions are more elusive, as usual. Study data were collected “just over two months after the move, enough for people to have settled into their new environment but not so much that the work they did could have changed much.” For productivity to improve, collective intelligence would have to accrue and positive new behaviors would have to evolve. Furthermore, we don’t know what conditions were included in productivity measures. [Workplace1080 suggests (a) revenue per employee, (b) annual hiring costs including enrollment administration and training, and (c) sick days.]

In any case, the benefits of collaboration, if any, require a variety of activities and spaces to develop. Enclosed solo carrels, huddle rooms for 2-4, distributed team rooms, central conference rooms, collaborative café, and some quiet soft seating are essential. Sander’s article comes to the same conclusion:

… Organizations should focus on providing workplaces that support the requirements for privacy and focus, as well as interaction and collaboration.

The good news is there is ample research to support hating the open office. The other good news is we understand better than ever why they fail due to excess exposure and over-stimulation, and how we can get the benefits of collaboration without undermining the individual.


Libby Sander, “Here’s the final nail in the coffin of open plan offices,” Fast Company, 2018-07-19 https://www.fastcompany.com/90204593/heres-the-final-nail-in-the-coffin-of-open-plan-offices.  Original publication in The Conversation https://theconversation.com/a-new-study-should-be-the-final-nail-for-open-plan-offices-99756

Ethan S. Bernstein and Stephen Turban, “The Impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration,” Harvard Business School, pub. The Royal Society Publishing accepted: 3 May 2018 http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/373/1753/20170239

Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, “Workplace Satisfaction” The privacy-communication trade-off in open plan offices,” University of California, publication date: 2013-01-01 https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2gq017pb

Richard M. Ryan and Edward L. Deci,  “Self-Determination Theory and the Facilitation of Intrinsic Motivation, Social Development, and Well-Being,” University of Rochester, https://selfdeterminationtheory.org/SDT/documents/2000_RyanDeci_SDT.pdf

Kimberly D. Elsbach, Francis J. Flynn, “Creative Collaboration and the Self‐Concept: A Study of Toy Designers,” Wiley Online Library, Journal of Management Studies, First published: 27 February 2013  https://doi.org/10.1111/joms.12024

Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, Adam Grant, “Collaborative Overload,” Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb 2016 issue, https://hbr.org/2016/01/collaborative-overload

Clayton P. Alderfer and Ken K. Smith, "Studying Intergroup Relations Embedded in Organizations,"Administrative Science Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1 (Mar., 1982), pp. 35-65, Published by: Sage Publications, Inc. on behalf of the Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell University https://www.jstor.org/stable/2392545

AuthorMarcia Hart