OK, Open Plan Offices Kill Collaboration But at Least They Won’t Kill You From Sitting All Day

Are open plan offices the optimal environment for team collaboration and innovation, or are they, in the words of my Inc.com colleague Geoffrey James, “the dumbest management fad of all time?” The answer depends on who you ask.

Tech giants and bean counters have long touted the advantages of knocking down office walls. Workers in desperate need of privacy and quiet have begged them to reconsider. Now it seems even scientists can’t agree on the popular but controversial design concept.

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70 percent less collaborative but 20 percent more active

Both results come from studies that had denizens of open offices fit with activity tracking badges to get an unbiased read on how workers move and interact in divider-free spaces. The first, from a team out of Harvard, grabbed headlines with it’s negative conclusions.

The likes of Mark Zuckerberg might swear by airplane hangar-like offices, but the data showed employees forced to inhabit them speak to each other a whopping 70 percent less and send somewhere between 25-50 percent more email. When walls comes down, so does the frequency of collaboration.

Should run out and buy some cubicles? Not so fast, says dueling research out of the University of Arizona. The new study followed 231 workers and found that those in open plan offices were 20 percent more physically active than cube dwellers and 32 percent more active than those with private offices. They also were 14 percent less stressed.

Those aren’t giant numbers, but they just might be enough to add years to your life. As we all know from recent media hectoring, sitting all day is surprisingly horrible for your physical and even mental health, raising the risk of a terrifying list of diseases from heart attacks to dementia. Hitting the gym after putting in long, unbroken hours at your desk doesn’t seem to counteract the effects.

But getting up occasionally during the day does. So if open plan offices nudge people to move more (even if it’s just because they can’t stand their annoying desk mates for one more second), the design trend is probably saving lives. “In terms of impact on health, this increase in physical activity is important,” concludes study author Esther Sternberg. “It is well within the range that would have an impact health.”

Maybe it’s time to admit there is no one ideal office type.

So dear confused business owner, which of these studies should weigh more heavily in your mind? Is it more important to boost collaboration or keep your people moving? Perhaps, the less than easy answer, as Workplace Insight points out, is that “this is a complex issue and no ‘final word’ is possible one way or another.”

Not only do different companies and teams have different needs, but there isn’t even a singular thing called an “open plan office.” Some are thoughtfully sprinkled with quiet spaces and sound reducers. Others are cavernous, cacophonous hell holes. The fact is the problem is not any particular design trend but the idea that trends are worth following at all.

You almost certainly won’t discover the best office design for your company by slavishly following what’s hot in Silicon Valley or even the relevant scientific journals. Instead, if you want to sensibly weigh the trade-offs of each design approach, you need to (gasp!) talk to your people and observe their needs. And then find a space that matches those.

It’s helpful to know the latest findings on the advantages and disadvantages of different designs, but you’ll never find a final answer anywhere beyond your own building. The right office design is the one that’s right for your business.

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