It seems that in the rush to foster open office culturres, we have trampled on the privacy and quiet needed by most people to work productively. Harvard Business Review recently discussed research that shows that workers are becoming more and more frustrated by cubicle systems and partition-less offices.
Noise is a big factor in this dissatisfaction as most people need a certain level of quiet to work. But privacy seems to be the biggest culprit. Respondents overwhelmingly reported that overhearing co-workers’ private discussions, having their own private discussions overheard and visual privacy are significant issues. HBR reports that “the loss of productivity due to noise distraction… was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices, and the tasks requiring complex verbal process” — the most important tasks, you might argue — “were more likely to be disturbed than relatively simple or routine tasks.” In addition to the expense savings, one of the main ideas behind open offices is that they foster collaboration. The study shows that this, simply is not happening or, at the very least, that the loss of productivity engendered by open offices is not offset by increased collaboration.
It often seems that the newest fad aimed at raising productivity Is so focused on better working that it loses sight of the very real human effects these changes have on people. Finding the balance between productivity and comfort is a challenge. We need to focus more on the latter and then back into the former. This is not really a sacrifice of higher productivity because comfort and peace of mind actually increase productivity.