Have you ever sat in your crowded open-plan office, staring at the furiously typing masses all chatting, eating, and walking around, and thought: “can we have offices with walls and doors, please? The open-plan layout is extremely noisy and distracting.”
There seems to be no happy medium between sitting out amongst your coworkers, being part of their every conversation and bodily function, and complete isolation at home in your office/closet/home gym.
But according to a new study, there is a place in an open-plan office that is ideal for focus and productivity: facing toward the room with a small number of people.
Does it really matter where you sit?
Past research on workplace layouts has indicated a number of different things about open workplace layouts affecting communication, privacy, and productivity, so researchers in this study set out to prove or disprove those hypotheses.
One classic study from 1982 states that satisfaction with communication, and consequently one’s job in entirety, remained the same whether office plans were partitioned or open concept, and another from 1991 posits that job satisfaction and workstation privacy via partitions are definitively correlated. But what does modern research say about these older theories?
This 2021 study collected data from workers in the spring of 2018 from a large UK technology company in London, whose multi-level building had been designed in 2016. Data came both in the form of a staff questionnaire and the natural office seating of the participants.
The general hypotheses here revolved around the effectiveness of open-plan offices, and whether or not they would change staff perceptions that staff had “regarding teamwork, focused work and perceived productivity.” What they found was that perceptions range across the board about all these topics in unexpected ways – and that an open office doesn’t always facilitate an open mind.
If you care about your output, don’t sit here
Open offices have been all the rage since the late 1960s, but lately, they’ve been causing more rage than they may be worth. Business psychologists assume that humans are social creatures, and in addition to all the money one would save on those pesky walls and doors, people prefer to have others in your line of sight as you’re working to avoid feelings of isolation or distractions. But sitting with too many people is just as bad, if not worse for one’s productivity.
In this particular London office, the “average person seated at their desk had 66 other desks within their visual field,” with some employees in their responses mentioning that they could see over 100 employees from their vantage point. The study shows that this insane amount of traffic has “the opposite effect” on productivity, team connectivity, and communication; “instead, we find that smaller views supported perceptions of teamwork (sharing information, team identity and cohesion, planned meetings).”
This was backed more specifically by the testimony of many a disgruntled employee in the interview portion of this study. The open layout was referred to as “far too large/noisy … it feels hard to talk to colleagues in the open-plan area without disturbing everyone”. In addition to the decibel level, the visual distractions were even worse; one employee states that “seeing all my teammates and other teams does not really help me cooperate with them as I either block out sound with headphones or try to ignore it”.
Sit in this location in the office instead
If you’re designing an office, or just finding a place to sit in one, this study has some notes on what an open concept floor plan can do for your employees, or yourself. It’s important to have enough employees within view that one feels motivated and communicative, but not like they’re at Grand Central Station in the middle of rush hour.
Facing a room filled with only a few people all working quietly amongst themselves allowed for an increased feeling of control in one’s environment, respondents said. This ultimately led to “significantly higher odds for positive ratings of focused work and perceived productivity.” Additionally, “fewer desks in someone’s forward-facing viewshed” made workers more likely to rate teamwork highly – researchers hypothesize that this could be because “sharing information might have been inhibited by the strong sense of not disturbing others close by.”
Facing colleagues seemed to also alleviate some of the need for planned meetings, as communications could be both sporadic and efficient. Those who faced other desks negatively rated planned meetings, while those who faced away from others didn’t seem to have their teammates within a line of sight and had no such responses.
According to this research, there’s a perfect balance: looking at 4 to 10 people per day, preferably your own team to alleviate unnecessary distractions.
One respondent put it succinctly, saying, “I work primarily with my immediate team, most people do… This would improve productivity, allow people to stop wearing headphones all day long, and form a stronger team identity because they have a more clearly defined space.”