There's a scene in the cult classic movie Office Space where the protagonist, fed up with life in his cubicle-filled bureaucracy, simply unscrews the walls of his Dilbert-like confines. The walls crash to the floor and our lead goes back to work, content and satisfied.
The frustrations of working in close proximity to gum-chewing, stapler-hoarding coworkers was too much. The workplace was too distracting to get anything done.
It's a scene countless workers may fantasize about replicating in their own workplaces. Based on the results of a recent study, it's time to reexamine the impact of open-plan offices on productivity.
With the rise of the Internet, open floor plans, work benches and Foosball tables were the popular choice of startup companies around the world. The premise was that such floor plans helped improve the bottom line.
However, a study by Oxford Economics shows that noise and distraction are the biggest factors employees seek to solve. The study should cause executives to reconsider whether open plans are the best choice.
Among the findings is the notion that workers are there to work and they want to work. Surveyed employees are deeply interested in working without interruption and believe this should be the top priority in office design. Free cafeteria food? Not so important.
Bosses, however, appear to be oblivious to the need for peace and quiet. Fewer than 50 percent of employees feel they have the right tools to deal with distractions, but two-thirds of executives do.
The study showed that while most open floor plans were created to foster creativity, openness, and collaboration, very few of those goals are being achieved using the plans. Sixty-eight percent of employees ranked "the ability to focus and work without limitations" as one of the top three most important factors. Forty-two percent had "having my own space" as a top-three factor.
Further, ambient noise lowers satisfaction with work among more than half of respondents. Employees indicated they frequently try to find escape in trips to the break room, walks, or using headphones in the office. Yet among executives surveyed only 39 percent indicated ambient noise was affecting employee productivity and only a third felt loud employees were an issue.
Change the business strategy
The business strategies that focused on transparency were well-intentioned. But that transparency is better placed in financial reporting and leadership practices. Providing some privacy between employees and their managers actually boosts productivity, according to a study by Harvard Business School professor Ethan S. Bernstein.
According to Bernstein, the research "shows that even a modest increase in group-level privacy sustainably and significantly improves line performance, while qualitative evidence suggests that privacy is important in supporting productive deviance, localized experimentation, distraction avoidance, and continuous improvement."
So what should employers do? Listen to their employees. By asking employees how they will be the most effective, how the office space is affecting their productivity, and measuring the impact of different configurations, organizations can achieve two core goals. Productivity will increase and employee satisfaction and engagement will increase simultaneously.
It very well may be time to unscrew those cubicle walls.