The Loop

Productivity: Alone in a Crowd

Filed under: Productivity

Productivity: Alone in a Crowd

Which is better – working in an office or in a cubicle? Most workers will tell you they can get more done in their own office. However, many companies decided by the late 20th century that cubes would not only be more cost-efficient, but that they would foster an environment of teamwork and camaraderie among co-workers.

The original open-office layout was conceived in Germany in the 1950s. American companies – ever driven by cost-efficiencies and profit margins – were quick to pounce on the trend. But does an open environment truly facilitate communication and the flow of ideas? Recent research has found that it may just do the opposite.

In fact, a 2011 study discovered that one of the more dominant "benefits" of open offices was making employees feel like part of a more casual, laid-back organization. Combine that feeling with today's prevalent "business casual" dress code and informal emails instead of typed memos, and you may find yourself missing the inner-office professionalism that used to accompany neckties and panty hose.

This reminds me of the late 1970s sitcom "WKRP in Cincinnati", in which news director Less Nessman failed to acknowledge his co-workers unless they pretended to knock on the door of his fake office – a desk and chair with imaginary walls marked by tape on the floor. While the gag was amusing, it demonstrated the sentiment that an office signifies respect, dignity, and a professional work environment.

Has our casual business society impacted productivity? Where cubicles are concerned, research reveals it has. The open space has been found damaging to the worker's attention span, productivity, creative thinking and satisfaction. Compared to standard offices, employees experience more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. Other studies have revealed that instead of feeling closer, coworkers feel distant, dissatisfied, and productivity has dropped.

The most problematic issue of the open office is, quite simply, noise. In laboratory settings, office noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. Even listening to music to block out office intrusion tends to impair our mental acuity.

Today, 70% of all offices now have an open floor plan. It is a means of assembling dozens of employees in a central location, separated only by short, carpeted walls. If it's difficult to understand why this might be intrusive, imagine sharing a hospital room with other patients and nothing but a ringed curtain to enclose your private conversations with a doctor.

The reality is that the cubical design has come to symbolize more than teamwork – it represents a hierarchy of power. There is a certain stigma that comes with a cubicle – your work does not warrant quiet, privacy, and the absence of disruptions. If companies are inadvertently delivering that message to their workers, what are realistic expectations for their performance?

At this point in time, it may not be feasible to give every worker a private office. But it may be worth taking pains to ensure that each employee feels his work is valued via an environment appropriate for the expected level of productivity.

Ironically, although companies continue to place workers in box-like cubicles, they expect and encourage them to "think outside the box." Perhaps it's time for management to "think outside the cubicle" and invent ways for rank-and-file employees to seek out a quiet environment to work in at least some of the time.  For example, a library, conference rooms when not in use, or the cafeteria when it's closed.

Thinking outside the box to eliminate working in a box isn't an easy task, particularly where cost is concerned. But if productivity is a high priority in your organization, perhaps it's time to consider new ways to restore respect, dignity, and a professional work environment.

The Loop Archives

Open All | Close All

Health Care Reform
Training & Leadership Development
Performance Management
Attraction & Retention

Request More Info


RSS Subscribe via RSS

Join Our Newsletter

Thank you for subscribing.