Many of you will remember the old McKinsey study on improving productivity in a factory. Every time the lighting was brightened, the productivity went up. After a while, productivity stabilized, so the researchers tried reducing light levels. Productivity climbed again. Researchers’ conclusion: changing the work environment can improve productivity.

When enclosed offices gave way to open offices, productivity went up. After making “cubes” smaller, productivity went up. After a while, the small cube open environment got reinterpreted as even more open, more rustic, and at first this felt fresh. Now almost every article in the business press [see this interesting example from NBC News] has been about the disaster of the open office. My theory is that employees like choice and change, but employers like cutting RE expenses and looking trendy. The unsuccessful open offices are noisy (no acoustic ceilings) or strangely quiet (with earbuds in every person…see this article from Harvard Business School), dark (bad lighting), and crowded. These open offices feel more like a monastery for monks copying manuscripts than like a creative collaborative workplace. There are not enough private spaces for either 2 people to work together or for 1 person to work alone for intense concentration. These private spaces cost money to construct and for the increased space requirement, resulting in increased rent. Corporate Real Estate Departments who brag that their cost of space/person is low may find that attracting new workers has troughed, and that productivity may have tanked.

Since the McKinsey study proved that change to the work environment can increase productivity, corporate America may want to reorganize the open office to maximize options. One of our recent projects in Boston for a large local non-profit implemented the concept of workplace choice. Without increasing the overall square footage of the space, the workplace was transformed (see image above). The new floors have a feeling of openness but there are dozens of private booths that are available for standup work, reading in a lounge chair or for 2-person meetings. We provided 1 private booth for every 4-5 people. At first, no one realized that the booths were available for them to actually use as needed, and almost every booth was vacant. Within a month more than half were occupied at any given time. When asked whether they liked working in the more open environment, it was interesting to hear their responses. They actually liked working at their smaller 120° cubes, and they felt less of a need for more privacy because privacy was readily available. I found it curious that the secluded quiet rooms (bigger than booths) were not in high demand. I think that the acoustic “white noise” mitigation makes the whole space quiet enough to concentrate and quiet enough to speak on the phone or to others without shouting and without disturbing others. Acoustics may be the central reason that some open plan offices are considered failures.-

For more information about the acousticians who worked on our successful open plan workplace, visit the website of Acentech.

If you want to transform your workplace from noisy and dark into a quiet, bright, happy and productive revitalized space, please call us. Increasing productivity, decreasing absenteeism and improving employee engagement is a complicated challenge. We would love to help!​

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