The Royal Society, the world’s oldest independent scientific academy, recently published a Harvard Business School study entitled “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration”.
The study has been discussed at length by many great publications and blogs, including The Washington Post, BBC News, Ars Technica, TechCrunch, Fast Company, Quartz, Basecamp’s Signal v. Noise and Cal Newport’s Study Hacks Blog (author of Deep Work).
For those of us who’ve been working in these open office environments as programmers, designers, or any other skillset that requires periods of deep concentration, none of this is likely to be of any particular surprise to us. I’m guessing most of us already know that working in an open office is a deep work killer, and likely already take off for a coffee shop or opt to work from home whenever we hope to get into the zone and get some real work done. The thing is, more often than not, those making the decisions around where to rent office space are not the ones who really need to spend much of their time in deep concentration.
That an open office would be distracting seems like a no-brainer to me. For about the first 190,000 years of the modern human’s existence, we were hunter-gatherers. We’ve evolved to be able to see more shades of green than any other color. As a hunter-gatherer this would be very important, so you can differentiate plants to avoid being poisoned, find prey to eat, and avoid dangerous encounters with your predators. For these same reasons, we’ve evolved to pay very close attention to visual and sound stimuli as well. Reacting immediately to the sound of a branch snapping or the movement in a shrub is a matter of life and death for a hunter-gatherer. Our brains literally crave new visual information, and react to it involuntarily, in an effort to ensure self-preservation.
Taylor & Francis Group is an international company based in England that publishes peer-reviewed journal articles. In their 2013 study, entitled “Office design’s impact on sick leave rates,” they found sick leave rates to increase for open-plan office designs.
The biggest question now is, what’s next for office plans? Should we move back to individual offices? How would doing that affect real estate costs when compared to being able to set up hundreds of desks in one big room?