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Joel Spolsky is pretty famous for advocating private offices for workers, particularly software developers (see here, here or here for example). I've also read that Microsoft generally has private offices, and I've interviewed at at least one company which also claimed private offices were better for productivity.

I'm curious what research has been done to support these claims, if any. Further, is there a "second best" layout? For example, are cubicles better than a completely open floor plan?

Since much of my work involves team interaction, I'm looking for data that addresses both individual and team productivity, if possible.

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Again, you're asking for "better" - better in what way? More productive for the employees? Cheaper? Easier on the HVAC system? Strive to be precise in your titles. –  Shog9 Apr 11 '12 at 1:03
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If you just rephrase your title to include the words "for productivity" (to match the question) I think you're fine. In fact, I submitted it as a suggested edit. –  jefflunt Apr 11 '12 at 1:05
    
You might find this WSJ article interesting: online.wsj.com/article/… –  jfrankcarr Apr 18 '12 at 15:24
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While private offices are great, it is unlikely that you will get them in most corporate environments. I will note however, that human beings hate having people approach them from behind and that is something to be aware of cubicle design. Go check out private offices (where the person has a choice in furniture placement) and you will rarely see one oriented so that the person's back is to the door. –  HLGEM Feb 12 '13 at 17:00
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Research is great, but I think we can conclude that private offices are probably better based on one simple fact: in open plans, the people with any power still get private offices. –  Jon of All Trades Mar 21 '13 at 3:24
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6 Answers

up vote 33 down vote accepted

There's a huge amount of research into how office layouts affect employee happiness and productivity, with some areas that have a consensus view, and others that don't.

Some of the things that have a consensus view are that poor lighting, uncomfortable furniture and high noise levels have highly detrimental impacts on productivity (see 1 and 2 below and this very good TED Talk).

However, one of the things that has more varying conclusions is that of office layout - specifically open-plan vs private offices. The general principle seems to be thus:

  • In jobs or industries that require high levels of short, informal and immediate interactions between people, open plan offices are more productive.
  • In jobs or industries where high levels of focus and concentration are required, private offices work best.

However, most of the studies that support open plan offices tend to have "softer" definitions and measures of productivity, while studies with firmer definitions and more scientific measurement practices tend to favour private offices. The biggest negative factor against open plan offices is almost always noise, and quieter open plan offices score better than loud ones. Headphones or ear plugs are also shown to help.

As such, the prevailing, though not consensus view, seems to be that private offices are better (see 3 below).

References:

  1. http://www.scientificjournals.org/journals2009/articles/1460.pdf
  2. http://www.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/obj/irc/doc/pubs/nrcc45620/nrcc45620.pdf
  3. http://eprints.qut.edu.au/16732/
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Probably this is not what you are looking for since that not research but anecdotal evidence.

Yet I found it to be much easier to focus on complex and time-consuming tasks when sitting in a quiet room alone or with just a couple of other programmers.

My productivity drops sharply when people around are talking on the phone, having meetings, smalltalks etc - I have to actively screen that out by trying to ignore it, and subjectively that wastes a lot of "mental energy". I also noticed that I tend to burn out way faster in noisy environments as well as procrastinate more (switching to internet browsing, social web etc).

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I am of the opinion that:

Closed Offices can increase collaboration.

This sounds counter-intertuitive but it goes something like this:

In an 'open' office area, folks are trying to concentrate and work, so several things happen:

1) They don't want to make noise that interrupts everyone just to ask 1 person a question.
2) They are not sure if their question is valid and if they would look inferior just for asking it (ego).
3) They can't laugh loudly or express any overt emotions or noise without potentially disturbing others.

Whereas in a private office they can work and concentrate and they when they need help or to collaborate they can just go to, or bring in, a fellow employee.

This setup is not easy however as it:
- requires a very high level of trust. More than a standard employer-employee relationship.
- looks strange to others. Non IT folks don't have the same needs for quite and concentration and may just see things like private offices as personal 'perks'.
- requires more formal structure for inter-personal relationships where are still very important. This can be address with a daily scrum, daily lunches, etc. One of my friends that has a virtual team doesn't do scrum (doesn't suit his org) but does have a daily virtual lunch, just to keep in touch with everyone. This means that when inter-personal communication is needed, people have good personal relationships that will encourage good communication.

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I would also add that private offices increase the efficiency of collaboration. No longer is it a simple matter to blurt out a random question, thereby interrupting other people. With private offices, one tends to think about the question first, in particular is it worth going over to so and so's office, in the process they frequently answer the question on their own, but if they do need to ask the question they usually know what they are asking about because they've put some thought into it. –  Dunk Jul 29 '13 at 17:08
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I don't have any research, sorry. But from a "concentrating on the job" point of view, it seems obvious that screening out distractions would be a plus. Both visual and auditory distractions, so I think cubicles would be an improvement on an open floor plan. (Personal experience - I sat at a partially open desk facing into a room once, and ended up putting up a screen because the constant movement across my field of view distracted me too much. And having a room or at least a quiet corner of a room was definitely an improvement over constant coworker chatter.)

Once you get into team productivity, the issue gets much more difficult, and depends so much on the team's style and on how often they need to communicate that I suspect general studies might not be too helpful for deciding on the best option for a specific case.

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not only team style matters here, but also natural predispositions of a person. Some people are more sensitive to distraction and noise, other have more ease when switching context and focus. –  dzieciou May 8 '13 at 21:05
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In Optimal office size: cubicles versus small rooms versus open plan? closed a duplicate of this question, Wikis answered:

According to Norbert & Diane Schmitt's academic text, jobs that require teamwork (increasingly common) are best performed in an open office.

Quote below with my emphasis:

How does a redesigned work space positively affect employee productivity? Studies suggest that work space, by itself, doesn't have a substantial motivational impact on people; rather, it makes certain behaviors easier or harder to perform. In this way, employee effectiveness is enhanced or reduced. More specifically, evidence shows that work space designs that increase employee contact, comfort, and flexibility are likely to positively influence motivation and productivity.

For instance, Amoco Corporation in Denver reported a 25 percent decrease in product cycle time (the time required to make its products), a 75 percent decrease in formal meeting time, an 80 percent reduction in duplicated files, and a 44 percent reduction in overall space costs after offices were redesigned to facilitate teamwork. Based on the evidence to date, an approach that matches office space to the sophistication of the work required is probably best. Jobs that are complex and require high degrees of concentration are likely to be made more difficult by noise and constant interruptions. Such jobs are best done in closed offices.

But most jobs don't require quiet and privacy. In fact, quite the contrary, jobs today increasingly require regular interaction with others to achieve maximum productivity. This is probably best achieved in an open office setting.

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I think that might be true for some industries such as making products. I think that others such as IT and specifically programmers might be different due to the need to spend 15 minutes just getting into a very complex problem with dozens of layers and an open office is not helpful. –  Michael Durrant Aug 1 '13 at 11:42
    
I note that the above doesn't include any judgments about product quality. Just because products were completed 25% faster doesn't necessarily mean they were done 100% as well in an open-plan office as they were with closed offices. –  Kyralessa Dec 5 '13 at 18:06
    
@Kyra, I'm just the messenger on this one. The linked answer was on a question closed as a duplicate of this one, so I wanted to make sure the information from it was available here. You may want to comment on the linked answer to address that one instead. –  jmac Dec 6 '13 at 1:26
    
I have to wonder, as well, what is meant by "jobs that require teamwork". What is the nature of a job that "requires" teamwork? In my experience, office jobs require teamwork because some manager has decided they do. –  Kyralessa Dec 6 '13 at 1:37
    
Hey @Kyra, I strongly recommend making that comment here or contacting the study author. I can't provide much help on this one. –  jmac Dec 6 '13 at 1:39
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Open office must be defined. It is not just the presence of doors and wall, cube walls, or no walls.

If I am in an shared space with people working either directly on my project, or doing the same task that I am: then there is benefit to collaboration.

If the grouping of people is random then the other people are just a noise source. The only thing we have in common is trivial topics, so the only interaction we have is nonproductive.

Unfortunately companies have not been willing to maintain cohesion, and they devolve into a random assortment over time.

In the Unites States the GSA is pushing an office of the future.

The long corridors, closed-door offices and high cubicles that have always defined the culture of the federal workplace have given way to open spaces filled with industrial white desks that most employees must now reserve like hotel rooms.

Employees badge in at the lobby turnstile so their bosses know where they are. They touch down at desks they must leave without a trace of clutter if they want to avoid a scolding. “Teaming Rooms” are “leveraged” for meetings, and attendees are electronically logged in by a “room wizard” on the wall outside.

It is part of a long debate over how employers can best deploy their workers in the digital era. This year, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer banned her employees from working at home because she said they were goofing off.

But Tangherlini is betting that his employees will get more done if they are at home — or anywhere outside the office, for that matter — more often. He wants them to instant-message, Google-chat, e-mail and Internet-call their way through the workday on laptops and smartphones. He is betting that when they do venture into the office, they will work together better and more creatively if closed doors and high cubicles don’t get in the way.

Yes the government is designing office space that employees will hate so much they will work from home. Because the arrangement of space will be different everyday, the only way to guarantee collaboration is via electronic means. And if you are going that route you might as well be at home.

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That office of the future would be enough to make me leave an organization. It makes me want to vomit just reading about it. –  HLGEM Jul 30 '13 at 17:35
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