A case against the office cubicle

September 12, 2013

Katherine Frey / The Washington Post

Open-plan offices are supposed to make us communicate more, collaborate more and, therefore, be more productive. Without walls and doors to let us hide behind, we're supposed to share constructive feedback over those cubicle half-walls, hold impromptu meetings and congregate in spontaneous groups that will erupt with new ideas.

Except of course, we often don't. We put on headphones to avoid hearing our desk mate gab about her date the night before. We try (unsuccessfully) to concentrate while a couple of guys one row over recap last night's game. And the only time spontaneous congregating ever seems to happen is when we're trying to get out the door to pick up the kids from daycare.

A new study from researchers at the University of Sydney confirms what many people have always sensed to be true: Open-plan offices have their merits, but those may well be outweighed by their problems. Writing in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, the researchers, Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, report that "our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants' overall work environmental satisfaction." The argument that an open office set-up boosts morale and productivity "appears to have no basis in the research literature," the authors write,

While much research in the past has shown correlations between open office plans and worker stress, distraction and even mental health issues, Kim and de Dear sought to clear up any ambiguity of similar past studies by using a survey of workers that's considered an industry standard. This gave them a database of more than 42,000 responses in 303 office buildings to analyze, with two-thirds of the workers in some form of open-plan layout, while about a quarter occupied private offices.

They found--unsurprisingly--that workers in private offices were most satisfied with their space at work, while those in open office arrangements were far less so. The biggest beef of those in the open environments was with "sound privacy," or unwanted noise and chatter from their surroundings.

More surprising was the researchers' finding that there was little difference in how satisfied different types of office dwellers were when it came to "ease of interaction." In fact, those with private offices actually reported higher mean satisfaction ratings with how well they could interact with their peers. "For these reasons, simply linking open-plan layout to facilitation of communication between coworkers...has scant empirical evidence supporting it," Kim and de Dear note.

That said, all wasn't perfect for the private office holders. While those with cushy personal spaces were generally satisfied with the amount of light they received, the amount of space they called their own and the noise levels around them, the research showed they weren't so happy about the temperature. Apparently poor heating or overactive office air conditioning is, as the authors write, a "universal source of dissatisfaction."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Beyond the cubicle

The federal office space of the future?

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · September 11, 2013