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Open Office Layout is Bad for the Brain!

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By Vikas Hazrati
infoq.com

Open office layout is usually considered the default layout for Agile teams. Cubicle farms are boring and a thing of the past. Open office layout is known to improve communication, collaboration and build stronger teams. Is it all as good as it sounds?

A recent research showcased on “The Secret Life of Buildings” mentioned that working in open-plan office is bad for the brain. The study revealed a 32% drop in workers well being and a reduction in their productivity by 15%.

Dr Jack Lewis, a neuroscientist who conducted the test, said: “Open plan offices were designed with the idea that people can move around and interact freely to promote creative thinking and better problem solving.
But it doesn’t work like that. If you are just getting into some work and a phone goes off in the back ground it ruins what you are concentrating on. Even though you are not aware at the time, the brain responds to distractions.”

Open-office layout leave little room for people to personalize their space. According to Dr Craig Knight, a psychologist at Exeter University, creating a personal space and a comfortable setting for work increases productivity.

Jordon quoted Joel Splosky when he mentioned that open-office layouts and the similar concept of war rooms are the places where bugs are bred. According to him, in such settings, no-one can concentrate for long due to constant interruptions and distractions.

Another study conducted in Australia mentioned that 90% of their results proved that working in open office layouts led to higher levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and high staff turnover.

The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.

Richard k Cheng mentioned that taking the open office concept to the extreme is the main reason for worry. According to Richard,

While an Agile team with it’s own space that is comfortable and pleasing does promote “hyper-productivity”, there should be caution to this thought. In many ways, this is a throwback to the days where developers and development teams were the cellar dwellers and left alone to do their techie stuff while the rest of the company does business. This is a major step back and seems un-agile to me.

So is it a problem with the open office layout or a problem with ‘just’ having an open office layout?

Dave Nicolette commented, when people start to think about collaborative work space they tend to assume it is an all-or-nothing proposition. The two extremes which come to mind are either to have a cubicle or spend your time in a pod with many people. According to Dave the idea is to have a combination of these spaces.

The open or bullpen sort of space (where we would do pair programming, for instance); semiprivate spaces for brainstorming or sitting/reading; and private spaces (which may be shared, hotel-style) for making personal phone calls, one-on-one discussions, and so forth.

Dan Benjamin had similar thoughts. According to Dan, he experienced distraction, decreased productivity and low morale in plain open office layouts. The open layout might be good for some situations but is definitley not an everyday environment.

For the record, I think offices when used as places to meet, to share ideas, or to bust out code in a 2-week sprint are great. But as an everyday environment, open offices come at a price.

What is your take on open-office layout?