The science of why you hate your open office

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The backlash against the dreaded open office plan has been brewing for many years. Not without good reason: Many employees struggle to focus amid the endless distractions and noise that are inevitable when you put everyone in a giant room together, and people feel constantly watched without any private space to retreat to. One survey found that 70% of workers report feeling distracted when they’re working. It’s bad for employers too, because employees tend to be less productive with so many distractions pulling their attention away from their work. Researchers have found that it can take more than 25 minutes for someone to return to work when they’ve been interrupted, and that interruptions of only 2.8 seconds long can double the amount of errorspeople make.

The evidence for the perils of open offices isn’t just anecdotal; there is a host of research backing it, too. Here’s what science has to say about how open plan offices impair the way we work today–and the one way they improve our lives.

OPEN PLANS REDUCE FACE TIME BETWEEN COWORKERS AND DECREASE PRODUCTIVITY

One of the biggest myths of the open office is that it encourages collaboration between coworkers, who–lacking walls–will spontaneously bump into each other and have conversations that will lead to the next brilliant idea.

But a landmark Harvard Business School study from 2018 found that open plan offices encouraged less face-to-face collaboration–employees spent 73% less time interacting with each other in-person. Instead, out of a desire to not distract or disturb their colleagues, people just sent more emails and instant messages. The study found that email use increased by 67%.

It’s something many of us open office denizens intuitively know: Why would you interrupt someone who’s intently working with a question or a spontaneous observation when you can just email her–especially if she has her headphones in, a now universal sign that people don’t want to be disturbed?

OPEN PLAN OFFICES ARE JUST TOO DAMN LOUD

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There’s another reason for those noise-canceling headphones. The biggest distraction in the open office is noise. In 2014, furniture maker Steelcase surveyed 10,000 workers and found that people lost up to 86 minutes per day because of noise. Another survey from 2013 found that almost half of the surveyed employees had a problem with acoustic distractions–in particular, overhearing conversations, which was the biggest frustration for many people.

That’s a real problem for workers’ productivity and creativity. A 2018 study by WeTransfer, which asked creatives about their most important requirements to do good work, found that 65% of creative people want silence. It was the most crucial element of their work process, far more than a neat, tidy space, coffee, or sunshine.