Does an Open Office Plan Make for a Creative Environment?

New support for the value of privacy at work.

Posted Aug 05, 2018

Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons
An "open plan" aquarium
Source: Miguel Hermoso Cuesta via Wikimedia Commons

How might a lack of privacy influence our creative thinking? Our general common sense might suggest a number of reasons why being constantly "on view" for others to see us, as in an open-plan office, could bring with it cognitive costs. Considerable mental effort may be needed to stay focused on one's own work, and not be distracted by nearby sounds, movements, happenings, the coming and going of others.

But are we fully aware of all  the different ways that lack of privacy might influence our thinking?  And, apart from simply asking people for their self-reports, how might we get a clearer and evidence-based understanding of how a lack of privacy impacts our thinking and making?  

Let's take a look at two highly creative experimental approaches – and the unique insights they provide – on the creativity-privacy connection.

Adding More Privacy: The Curtain Study

A very large factory in Southern China that produced mobile phones and other digital devices had a massive open floor plan where the workers on the production lines and the supervisors were continually and readily seen.  

What would happen to production speed and quality if some of the lines were surrounded by a group privacy curtain – something like a large hospital-style privacy curtain? And what if an "undercover observer" could be inside the curtain-surrounded lines, performing their required work but also taking note of what went on behind the curtain?

Researchers randomly chose 4 of the 32 production lines in the factory to be surrounded by a privacy curtain. The curtain remained in place not just for a day or for a few days, but for several months.  

So what happened?

Teams on the lines surrounded by a privacy curtain showed higher productivity (more units per hour) and the quality of their work increased. They also showed more improvisations in how their work was completed.  

The relatively heightened team privacy afforded by the curtain allowed temporary smaller issues to be solved locally. Rather than either calling on help from higher management, or hiding new experimental problem-solving methods from others, solutions could be shared with other workers on the line.  

Observations by the undercover researchers on the curtain-surrounded lines revealed that the workers actively switched roles to learn multiple tasks, particularly at stations immediately adjacent to their own. This fostered greater forms of cross-support in the team, fluid adaptation, experimentation, and learning.

The privacy curtain allowed the workers on the line greater freedom to collaborate and discuss new ideas and to iteratively test and try process improvements, arriving at successful prototypes before sharing them with outsiders. It formed a “scrutiny-reduced” supportive making-and-finding environment where both the workers and the line managers could adaptively experiment with an increased degree of autonomy.  

Perhaps counterintuitively, greater privacy led to more sharing, group knowledge, and collaborative experimentation.

Removing Privacy: The Electronic Monitoring Studies

"Open Company 1" is a Fortune 500 multinational company. At its global headquarters the company decided to transform one of its floors to a completely open, transparent, and boundaryless space. In the new space, there would be no walls and no partitions between the office workstations. There would be more than one hundred employees on the floor, working in diverse functional areas ranging from technology and sales to finance and product development.  

Learning of the company's imminent floor-change plan, researchers asked the employees to take part in a study that would track who talked with whom, and when, and how. But there were several twists.   

First, the tracking of their interactions would cover a period of 15 workdays before the move, and also a period of 15 workdays after the move. The post-move tracking would not begin immediately but a few months later. This gap would give everyone some time to adjust to their new environment and an opportunity to settle into their modes of working there. A two-month gap also allowed the data collection to occur at a similar point in the company's quarterly cycle, so that the employees' work demands would be comparatively similar (and more comparable) for the two recording periods. 

The other twists were all technology-related. Participants who agreed to take part in the study were asked to wear a small infrared sensor on a lanyard — a so-called "sociometric badge" — that recorded, with a high level of detail, each of their face-to-face interactions with others also wearing a badge. Participants would also be asked to wear, on the lanyard, a tiny microphone that would capture if they were speaking or listening (but not the content of what was said), and two other tracking devices — an accelerometer that would record their body movements and posture, and a Bluetooth sensor that would capture their spatial location.  

All of the recordings would be time-stamped in intervals of 10 milliseconds. In addition, these data would be combined with the information from the participants' company email account, particularly information about who they e-mailed, copied, or blind copied, and their instant messages from the same periods.

A total of 52 participants (about 40 percent of all those who moved to the new space) agreed to participate. Across the pre-move and post-move recordings, this yielded a very large dataset: 96,778 face-to-face interactions, 84,026 emails, and 25,691 instant messages (consisting of 221,426 words). 

Analyzing these data revealed that the participants, after the move to the open office plan, now spent much less time — not more time — in face-to-face interactions.  

Before the move they spent around 6 hours in face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the redesign this dropped dramatically: the same people now spent only slightly more than 1.5 hours in face-to-face interaction. And the amount of interaction that took place over email and instant messaging greatly increased: The number of emails they sent increased by 56 percent, they received 20 percent more emails, and were copied on 41 percent more. Instant messaging activity similarly increased by 67 percent and the number of words sent by instant messaging increased by 75 percent.

But the unwelcome effects of the move did not end there. When executives at the company were asked – in confidence – about how the redesign of the floor had influenced performance, they confided that their internal performance metrics showed a noticeable drop in the quality of employees work.

A second study by the same researchers at a different Fortune 500 company ("Open Company 2") again looking at the types of interactions of about 100 employees, before and after they were assigned to an open floor, yielded very similar outcomes. There were dramatic decreases in the amount of time spent interacting face-to-face – even for employees who were physically quite near to one another.  

What are we to make of all this?  

Let's put ourselves in the shoes of someone in the open-plan office. Carrying on your conversation with another colleague, when surrounded by a cluster of others trying to do their own work, and for whom your conversation is irrelevant and distracting, would discourage conversation. Indeed, the very first listed piece of advice, in a recently published set of 10 experience-based pointers on "How to cope with working in an open-space lab" was "Be quiet and inconspicuous, as if you were in a library."   

From a more abstract and general level it may be worth stating something that, although obvious, is too-often overlooked. More is not always better, and there are many origins for creative thinking and action.  

That some amount of a given ingredient, such as face-to-face interactions, is good for collaboration doesn't mean that unlimited amounts of that ingredient will also be good. And too much of any one factor (e.g., opportunities for interaction) may mean there is too little of other – equally necessary – factors, such as opportunities for quiet and private thinking time. Many creative endeavors will benefit from social interaction – at certain times and in some forms – but, at other times those endeavors may equally benefit from boundaries to interaction and a high degree of privacy.  

A "boundaryless office" also takes away from other less perceptible but important cognitive and motivational factors, such as a sense of personal control over one's environment, including when to interact, what to share, etc.  

Equally important, a boundaryless office restricts one's ability to choose to match one's working or creative situation with one's current needs. For example, another recent study of the effects of moving from private offices to an open-plan office found that providing access to quiet work-spaces, and a match between a given person's needs for quiet and their access to quiet workspaces, were associated with fewer distractions, less stress, and a more positive perception of collaborative opportunities. 

The availability of choices for when and where to interact with others may also explain earlier findings of comparably high levels of self-reported satisfaction with flex offices – that is, open plan offices that have so-called "backup spaces" that can be flexibly used for periods of intensely concentrated work, or for interactive meetings, private phone calls, and so on. Flex offices provide opportunities for both collaboration and privacy, removing the need for everyone to be perpetually shielding themselves from distractions, or perpetually monitoring themselves to prevent themselves from becoming a distraction to others.

What we can see from the privacy curtain study and the open-plan office studies is that how our working environments play a key role in our creativity and productivity is not simple. We need privacy – including opportunities for collaborative and one-to-one privacy – and we need it at the right times and in the right dosage levels.  Reaching for a creative idea is often a tenuous and tentative cognitively demanding stretch; any irrelevant pushes and pulls on our attention, even if well-intentioned, may leave good ideas forever out of our grasp.

References

Bernstein, E. S. (2012).  The transparency paradox: A role for privacy in organizational learning and operational control. Administrative Science Quarterly, 57, 181–216.  

Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018).  The impact of the 'open' workspace on human collaboration.  Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, B, 373, Article 20170239.  

Danielsson, C. B., & Bodin, L. (2008).  Office type in relation to health, well-being, and job satisfaction among employees.  Environment and Behavior, 40, 636–668.

Haapakangas, A., Hongisto, V., Vargo, J., & Lahtinen, M. (2018).  Benefits of quiet workspaces in open-plan offices: Evidence from two office relocations.  Journal of Environmental Psychology, 56, 63–75.

Pautasso, M., & Van der Werf, W. (2017).  How to cope with working in an open-space lab?  European Review, 25, 679­–687.