Is Your Open Office Killing Creativity?

Abigail Cain
Aug 29, 2018 3:06PM

Office at Google. Courtesy of Google.

When Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein began studying the effects of open office plans, he wasn’t certain what he’d find.

“You hear so much said about how much people don’t like open offices,” he explained in a recent interview, “but there’s also so much said about the vibrancy of an environment when you open space and data up, about the collisions and interactions that will happen there.”

His research, conducted at two unnamed Fortune 500 companies before and after major renovations, ended up contradicting one of the biggest arguments in favor of open offices: that they facilitate increased communication. Bernstein discovered that face-to-face interaction actually decreased by roughly 70% in the new office layout, as communications have largely shifted to electronic methods, such as IMs and email.

Published in July, Bernstein’s is the latest in a string of studies exploring the effects that open offices are having on workers. Clearly, communication suffers—but what about creativity? And if an open office isn’t the answer, is there a better model for encouraging imagination and inventiveness at work?

The answers to these questions are becoming increasingly relevant. According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workplace report, 70% of U.S. workplaces employ open office plans. In 2015, Facebook opened the world’s largest open-office workspace in Menlo Park; Apple and Google have since followed suit, sinking millions of dollars into their own major office redesigns. Even freelancers and small businesses have joined in, with the proliferation of co-working spaces such as WeWork that utilize open layouts.

Facebook’s Menlo Park Headquarters. Courtesy of Facebook.


Big-tech open offices have garnered plenty of supporters. Gregg Stefancik, an engineering director at Facebook, told The Independent in 2015 that he used to work in a more traditional workspace, but he prefers an open layout. “Before, people would close their door and you’d feel this real barrier to talking to them,” he noted.

Support for open offices isn’t entirely anecdotal, however. Organizational psychologist Matthew C. Davis sifted through more than 100 studies of office environments for a 2011 review, and found several examples that demonstrated the benefits of an open workspace. One study revealed that, following an open-office renovation, employees viewed their company as less buttoned-up and more innovative and collaborative. Another indicated that an open layout can serve as an effective symbolic gesture, reinforcing a shift in company culture or organizational mission.

An open office layout can even improve your health, according to new research published this month. Workers in open bench-seating arrangements were up to 20% more physically active than their counterparts in cubicles, and 32% more active than people working in private offices—a significant figure, considering that physical activity at the office results in 14% less physiological stress outside the workplace.

Yet Davis’s analysis also made it clear that indiscriminately lowering the physical barriers between office workers can result in significant drawbacks—including reduced levels of creativity.

First, open offices are often distracting. One study noted that participants exposed to typical open-office background noise give up more easily on a series of unsolvable puzzles. Other research revealed that while a certain volume of white noise encourages high levels of creativity, conversations and face-to-face interactions significantly disrupt the creative process. In today’s typical open office—many with concrete floors and minimal furniture—conversations can easily travel the length of the room. Entrepreneur and venture capitalist Howard Tullman vented in a piece for Inc. that his open office “sounds like a supermarket on Saturday morning or Chuck E. Cheese at Christmas.”

Office at Google. Courtesy of Google.

Secondly, a certain amount of privacy actually boosts creativity. Bernstein’s previous research looked at Chinese workers who became more willing to experiment and streamline processes when the factory floor was partitioned off by curtains. He has suggested that when people are on display, they are much less likely to test out creative solutions. Instead, they stick to more familiar tasks, worried about judgement from managers or co-workers.

It’s the same reason that artist studios are typically private spaces, noted New York-based sculptor and performance artist Tamar Ettun. Several years ago, she was accepted to a residency through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC), in which artists worked out of a former office building on Governors Island that was missing many of its interior doors.

“The fact that you can’t close your door as an artist can be challenging,” Ettun explained. Being constantly scrutinized can be both “good and bad, because sometimes you don’t want to get feedback right away, you’re just experimenting with something and you’re not really sure. It takes time until you want to show people, even if it’s your peers, your friends.”

After Governors Island, she found another LMCC residency in the Financial District—this one in an empty 19th-floor office featuring private workstations with a generous communal area in the center of the space. Ettun worked in her private space for the most part, but some of her work spilled over into the hallway, where people passing by would see it and share feedback or leave notes. “Sharing spaces encourages and enables this kind of experimentation and interdisciplinary flow of ideas, mostly because you get immediate access and exposure to people in other fields,” she said. “So there’s a sense of play and courage in that. But then you lose the deep solitary concentration and an independent, uninterrupted way of thinking and making.”

WeWork Ginza Six. Courtesy of WeWork.  

A similar situation developed decades ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when a mishmash of departments were thrown together during World War II in a temporary structure known as Building 20. The arrangement led to unprecedented levels of innovation, and is today considered a legendary example of the benefits of an open office (Facebook even named its mega-open office after it).

Yet as Cal Newport explains in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Building 20 was less of an “open office” than people today think. It was organized more as a series of departmental rooms off of a central hallway—so people could connect during their walks through the building, but retreat to privacy to work on their individual projects.

These stories support another one of Bernstein’s arguments: that occasional social interactions are better for creative problem-solving than constant ones.

This is why Melissa Marsh, founder and executive director of PLASTARC, a firm for workplace innovation and real-estate strategy, believes that the next generation of offices will have room for both individual and collaborative work. Known as “activity-based workspaces,” these offices feature elements of an open office layout, but also incorporate enclosures for quiet, concentrated work. “On average, we spend about half of our day in some sort of interaction and coordination, and about half of our day trying to get the stuff done that we talked about when we were in the meeting,” Marsh explained. “What it means is that everyone needs some time in quiet spaces and some time in places where they can be noisy.”

“Those activity-based work environments are the future,” she continued. “They are the best from a human needs perspective, because they give us diversity and control.”

Ettun, the artist, found a more idiosyncratic solution. Until last month, she was working out of a studio space in a swimming pool four stories underneath Times Square. After several years of residencies and communal workspaces, she was ready for a little privacy.

Abigail Cain