Yes, the Open Office Is Terrible — But It Doesn’t Have to Be (Ep. 358)

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Feeling stressed from working in a noisy open office? Tell your boss that working from home increases worker productivity by 13 percent! (Photo: MaxPixel)

It began as a post-war dream for a more collaborative and egalitarian workplace. It has evolved into a nightmare of noise and discomfort. Can the open office be saved, or should we all just be working from home?

Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.

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Hey, are you at work right now? And do you work in an office? Have you ever worked in an office? If you have, there’s a good chance it was an open office, at least to some degree. The open office design has been around for decades, in a variety of forms. If you’re a cynic, you might think an open office is all about cramming the maximum number of employees into the minimum amount of real estate. But you could also imagine that an open office produces better interaction and more collaboration. Wouldn’t it be nice to know if this were true? That’s what these people wanted to learn.

Ethan BERNSTEIN: I’m Ethan Bernstein, I’m an associate professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

Stephen TURBAN: My name is Stephen Turban. I am a recent graduate of Harvard College and I currently work for a global management consultancy.

Stephen DUBNER: Okay so, we’re here to talk about a paper that you co-authored, called “The Impact of the Open Workspace on Human Collaboration.”

TURBAN: I don’t think I realized how much anger there was against open offices until the research was published and I was contacted by a number of friends and colleagues about their open offices and their deep, deep emotional scarring.

BERNSTEIN: There’s certainly a population of people out there who hate — I think that’s perhaps even not strong enough—

DUBNER: Not strong enough, agreed. But proceed please.

BERNSTEIN: People find it impossible to get work done. They find it demoralizing.

TURBAN: Also the lack of privacy, and the feeling that they’re being watched by others.

BERNSTEIN: Privacy tends to give us license to be more experimental, to potentially find opportunities for continuous improvement, to avoid distractions that might take us away from the focus we have on our work.

TURBAN: Ethan is really, I would say, the king of privacy.

BERNSTEIN: My research over time has been about the increasingly transparent workplace and its impact on human behavior and therefore performance.

BERNSTEIN: Over time, I’ve gotten asked the question, “What about the open office? How does it impact the way in which people work and collaborate?” I haven’t had an empirical answer.

In search of an empirical answer, Bernstein and Turban began a study of two Fortune 500 companies that were converting from cubicles to open offices. Sure, the downsides of an open office are obvious: the lack of privacy; having to overhear everything your coworkers say. But what if the downsides are offset by a grand flowering of collaboration and communication and idea-generation? What if the open office is in fact a brilliant concept that we’ve all been falsely maligning?

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The office is such a quintessential emblem of modern society that it may seem it’s been around forever. But of course it hasn’t.

SAVAL: The economy of the United States was based on farming and it was based on manufacturing. The office was almost an afterthought.

That’s Nikil Saval, the author of a book called Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace.

SAVAL: People thought, “Well, offices are essentially paperwork factories. So we should just sort of array them in an assembly-line sort of formation.”

This meant a big room filled with long rows of desks and, scattered on the periphery, private offices for the managers. This factory model, which got its start in the late 19th century, came to be known as the American plan. And it was standard office form for decades, at least in the U.S. But then, in the middle of the twentieth century, in Germany …

SAVAL: … There were two brothers, the Schnelle brothers, who began to wonder about the nature of the American plan. There was a sense that this was arbitrary, and there was no real reason to lay out an office in this way.

In 1958, Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle created the Quickborner consulting group with the idea of bringing some intentionality to modern office design.

SAVAL: And one of the ideas that came to them was that an office is not like a factory, it’s actually a different kind of workplace. And it requires its own sort of system. Maybe there isn’t a reason to have desks in rows. Maybe there isn’t a reason for people to have private offices at all, if essentially the office is not about producing things but it’s about producing ideas and about producing communication among different people. And so over time they pioneered a concept that they called the burolandschaft, or “office landscape.” And it was essentially the first truly open plan office.

The idea was to create an office that was more collaborative and more egalitarian.

SAVAL: It looks extremely chaotic. You’d just have desks in clusters and they just seem to be arranged in a pretty haphazard form. But, in fact, there was rigorous planning around it, in a way that would facilitate communication and the flow of people and ideas. And it eventually made its way to England and the United States, and it was considered an incredible breakthrough.

A breakthrough perhaps — but the earliest open offices drew complaints similar to the ones we hear today. Lots of complaints.

SAVAL: By not instituting a barrier between people, by not having doors, by not having any way of controlling the way sound traveled in the office, it stopped facilitating the thing it was supposed to facilitate, which was communication, because it became harder to communicate in an office environment where phones were ringing off the hook, where you could hear typewriters across the room, and things like that. It wasn’t actually the utopian space that it promised to be. In fact, it was deeply debilitating in some ways for the kind of work that people wanted to do.

Meanwhile, there was an American named Robert Propst working for the Herman Miller furniture company, in Michigan.

SAVAL: He was not himself trained as a designer. He was sort of like a freelance thinker.

Propst was intrigued by the “office landscape” idea — its openness and egalitarian aspirations — but he also appreciated its practical shortcomings.

SAVAL: And he decided to turn to experts — to anthropologists, to social psychologists, to people of that nature.

After some research, Propst came to the conclusion that individuals are — well, they’re individuals. And they need more control over their workspace. He and the designer George Nelson came up with a new design in which each office worker would be surrounded by a suite of objects to help them work better. In 1964, Herman Miller debuted the “Action Office.”

SAVAL: There was a standing desk, a regular desk that you sat at, and a telephone booth.

Design critics loved the Action Office.

SAVAL: It looked incredible, but it was very expensive and very few managers wanted to spend this kind of money on their employees. So they went back to the drawing board and they tried to come up with something cheaper.

In 1968, Herman Miller released the Action Office 2.

SAVAL: And it was this three-walled space: these fabric-wrapped walls that were angled, and they were meant to enclose a suite of furniture. And it was meant to mitigate the kind of chaos that an open office plan might otherwise have.

You may know the Action Office 2 by its more generic name …

SAVAL: … Which is the cubicle.

The cubicle promised a variety of advantages.

SAVAL: It’s meant to be very flexible, and it can form an impromptu conference room. And it was meant to divide up an open office plan in a way to mitigate the kind of chaos that an open office plan or an office landscape might otherwise have. And it was incredibly well-received. It was copied by a number of furniture companies. And soon it was spreading in offices everywhere.

But the cubicle could also be exploited.

SAVAL: It became a perfect tool for cramming more and more workers into less and less space very cheaply. The whole notion of what Propst was trying to do was to give a worker a space that they could control — was turned into the exact opposite. It was clear that his concept had become the most-loathed symbol of office life.

Indeed, the revolutionary, freedom-giving cubicle came to be seen as a sort of corporate version of solitary confinement. This left Robert Propst most unhappy.

SAVAL: And he blamed managers. He blamed people who were not enlightened, that created what he called barren, rat-hole-type environments.

Robert Propst, like the Schnelle brothers before him, had not quite succeeded in creating a vibrant and efficient open office. Their new environments introduced new problems: chaos in the first case, cubicles in the second. As with many problems that we humans try to correct — whether in office culture, or society at large — the correction turns out to be an overcorrection. Unintended consequences leap out, and humble us. And yet: in this case, the fact is that most offices today are still open offices. Why are we holding on to this concept if it makes so many people so unhappy?

TURBAN: If you’re looking purely at a cost per square foot, having an open office is cheaper.

BERNSTEIN: There are a lot of people, whether they’re managers or employees, who like the open office.

Bernstein admits that managers are primarily impressed by the cost savings of an open office. But some employees …

BERNSTEIN: … Some employees like it because they have visions of it being more vibrant, more interactive. That fun, noisy, experiential place they’re hoping for once you take down the walls and make everyone able to see each other.

TURBAN: And there’s also been a big push around these collisions that have emerged in social sciences. How do you create these random interactions between people that spark creativity?

“Collision” is a term you hear a lot in office design and the design of public spaces generally. It’s the promise that unplanned encounters can lead to good things — between co-workers or neighbors, even strangers. Conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened; the exchange of ideas; unforeseen collaboration. Now, the office is plainly a different sort of space from the public square. The office is primarily concerned with productivity. We’d all like to be happy working in our offices, but is it maybe worth surrendering a bit of happiness — and privacy, and so on — for the sake of higher productivity? After all, that’s what we’re being paid for.

BERNSTEIN: If you want to have a certain kind of interaction that’s deep, productive in idea generation, or in something that requires us to have lots of “bandwidth” between each other, it’s nice to have that face-to-face interaction.

Ben WABER: Face-to-face conversations are so important.

That’s Ben Waber, he’s the C.E.O. of an organizational-analytics company called Humanyze.

WABER: What we do is use data about how people interact and collaborate at work. Think email, chat, meeting data, but now also sensor data about how people interact in the real world. And we use that to understand really what goes on inside companies.

Humanyze has developed sociometric I.D. badges, embedded with sensors, to capture these data.

WABER: We have by far the largest data set on workplace interaction in the world.

And what do the data say about face-to-face communication?

WABER: In all of our research, that has consistently been the most predictive factor of almost any organizational outcome you can think of: performance, job satisfaction, retention, you name it. People did evolve for millions of years to interact in a face-to-face way. We are very used to small changes in facial expression, small changes in tone of voice and that’s particularly important in work contexts where high levels of trust, especially as work gets more and more complex, and the things we build and make together are more and more complex. Really having that trust and being able to convey really rich information is critical.

Bernstein and Turban also believe in the value of face-to-face communication.

TURBAN: Nuanced communication around, “Here’s a proposal I have. Here is a thought I have about how this last meeting went.” That is a very rich and nuanced form of communication and most literature suggests that face-to-face communication is much better at that.

BERNSTEIN: Sociologists have suggested for a long time that propinquity breeds interaction — propinquity being co-location, being close to one another.

TURBAN: The closer two people are together, the more likely they are to interact, the more likely they are to get married, the more likely they are to work together.

BERNSTEIN: And interaction being, we will have a conversation, we will actually get some kind of collaboration done between the two of us.

TURBAN: You can look at slouching shoulders, you can see what is their facial expression, and that conveys a lot of information that is really hard to convey, no matter how good you are at emojis — and let me tell you, I am pretty good at emojis.

Okay, so face-to-face communication is important, at least for some purposes and on some dimensions. And an open office is designed to facilitate more face-to-face communication. So … does it work? That was the central question of Bernstein and Turban’s study.

DUBNER: In your study, there are two companies that were transitioning to open offices. First of all, can you reveal the identity of one or both of those companies?

BERNSTEIN: I can’t. In order to do this study, we had to agree to a level of confidentiality. I will say that we had a choice of sites to study and we chose the two that we thought would be most representative of the kind of work we were interested in, which is white-collar work in professional settings, Fortune 500 companies.

DUBNER: Can you give us some detail that helps us envision the kind of office and what the activities are?

BERNSTEIN: If you work in a global headquarters amongst a series of functions like H.R. or finance or legal or sales or marketing, this would describe your work setting.

DUBNER: And can you describe, for the two companies that you studied, they moved to open offices — what was their configuration beforehand?

BERNSTEIN: Everyone was in cubicles. And then they moved to an open space that basically mimicked that, but just without the cubicle walls.

TURBAN: Those barriers went down, so you could see if John was sitting next to Sally before, and there was a wall between them, that John could see Sally and Sally could see John, and that was the big difference between the original and the office afterwards.

DUBNER: So, tell us about the experiment. I want to know all kinds of things, like how many people were involved? Did they opt in or not? Was it randomized? How the data were gathered, and so on.

TURBAN: In the first study, we had 52 participants; in our second, we had 100 participants, and we wanted to measure communication before and after the move.

BERNSTEIN: We started with the most simple empirical puzzle we could start with, which was simply how much interaction takes place between the individuals before and after. We wanted to purely see if this hypothesis of a vibrant open office were true.

TURBAN: So before the move, we gave each of the participants sociometric badges.

These are the badges we mentioned earlier, from Humanyze.

BERNSTEIN: So they contain several sensors. One is a microphone. One is an I.R. sensor to show whether or not they’re facing another badge. They have an accelerometer to show movement and they have a Bluetooth sensor to show location.

TURBAN: So you can get a data point which looks like: “John spoke with Sally for 25 minutes at 2 p.m.” But you don’t know anything about what the content of the conversation is.

BERNSTEIN: A number of previous studies that have used the sociometric badges have shown that we are very aware of them for the first, say, few minutes that we have them on, and after that we sort of forget they’re there.

DUBNER: You write that the microphone is only registering that people talk and not recording or monitoring what they say. Do you think the employees who wore them believe that? I mean if I think there’s a one percent chance that my firm is monitoring or recording what I’m saying, I’m quite likely to say less, yes?

BERNSTEIN: Well, it’s actually kind of a funny question, because in this case we really weren’t. But look, we phrased the consent form as strongly as we could to ensure that they understood this was for research purposes, and if they hadn’t believed it, they probably would have opted out.

DUBNER: What are we to make of the fact that the data represents the people who opted in only? Because I’m just running through my head, if I were an employee and I’m told that there’s some kind of experiment going on with these smart people from Harvard Business School and, however much you tell me or don’t, I intuit some or I figure out some or I guess some. And we’re moving to an open office and I think, “Oh, man, I hate the open office and therefore I definitely want to participate in this experiment so that I can sabotage it by behaving exactly the opposite of how I think they want me to behave.” Is that too skeptical or cynical?

BERNSTEIN: Boy, you sound like one of my reviewers in the peer review process.

DUBNER: Sorry.

BERNSTEIN: It is a valid concern. Let me tell you what we’ve tried to do to alleviate it. The first thing is we’ve compared the individuals who opted in to wearing the badge and those who did not to a series of demographics we got from the H.R. systems. And we don’t see systematic differences there.

TURBAN: It is always possible when you’re doing social science research that someone makes a guess, whether it’s accurate or not, about what this study is trying to understand, and then takes a personal stand and says, “I’m going to stand for what’s right, and what’s right is cubicles!” In that case, they would have to have done that for every day for two months. So it would have been a remarkable feat of endurance. We don’t think that that’s what happened, but the open office factions are real, so, definitely important to keep in mind.

In addition to all these data from the employees’ badges, the researchers could also measure each employee’s electronic communications — their emails and instant messages. Again, they were only measuring this communication, not examining the content.

BERNSTEIN: And so what we were able to do is compare individuals’ face-to-face and electronic communication before and after the move from cubicles to open spaces in these two environments.

Okay, so the Bernstein-Turban study looked at two Fortune 500 companies where employees had moved from cubicles to open offices. And they measured every input they could about how the employees’ communication changed — face-to-face and electronic communication. What do you think happened?

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DUBNER: So, you’ve done the study, two firms over a period of time with a number of people to measure how their behavior changes, generally. Tell us what you found.

TURBAN: So, the study had two main conclusions.

BERNSTEIN: We found that when these individuals moved from closed cubicles into the open office, interaction decreased.

TURBAN: Face-to-face communication decreased by about 70 percent in both of our two studies. Conversely, that communication wasn’t entirely lost. Instead, the second result that we found was that communication actually increased virtually, so people emailed more, I.M.’ed more.

DUBNER: How much of that decrease was compensated by electronic?

TURBAN: We saw an increase of 20–50 percent of electronic communication. That means more emails, more I.M.’s. And depending on how you think about what an email is worth, maybe you could say that they made up for it. Is an email worth five minutes of conversation, is it two minutes?

BERNSTEIN: It’s a little bit hard to say, because an email and an interaction may not be comparable in item.

TURBAN: Even if we saw an increase in the amount of virtual communication, which totally made up for the face-to-face communication, what you probably saw was a loss in richness of communication — the net information that’s being conveyed was actually less.

DUBNER: What can you tell us about how the open space affected productivity and satisfaction?

BERNSTEIN: I’ll come out clean and say, we don’t have perfect data on performance, and we don’t have any data on satisfaction. We purposefully stayed away from satisfaction; we just wanted to look at the interaction of individuals. In one of our two studies, we have anecdotally some information where the organization felt that actually performance had declined as a result of this move.

I will say that, boy, if we think about this, there are probably lots of contexts that we can think of where more face-to-face interaction would be useful and lots of contexts in which we think more face-to-face interaction would not be useful. And that’s where I’d actually prefer to take the conversation about productivity. That, at the very least, to date managers of property, managers of organizations have not thought about this being a trade off. They’ve assumed cost and revenue go together. That may be true in some subset of environments, but in others that’s not going to be true.

DUBNER: What did the companies in your study do after you’d presented them with your findings?

BERNSTEIN: One of them has actually taken a step back from the open office. The other has attempted to make the open office work by adding more closed spaces to it.

Okay, so an empirical study of open offices finds that the primary benefit they are meant to confer — more face-to-face communication and the good things such communication can lead to — that it actually moves in the opposite direction! At least in the aggregate. To be fair, an open office is bound to be much better for certain tasks than others. And, more important, better for some people than for others. We’re not all the same. And some of us, I’m told — not me, but some of us — thrive in a potentially chattier office. But on balance, it would appear that being put out in the open leads most people to close themselves off a bit. Why? You can probably answer that question for yourself. But Turban and Bernstein have some thoughts too. Here’s one: maybe you don’t want to disturb other people:

TURBAN: So, when you’re in an open office, your voice carries. And I think people decide very reasonably to say, “Well I could speak with Tammy, who’s three desks away. But if I talk to Tammy, I’m going to disrupt Larry and Katherine, and so I will send her a quick message instead.”

Or maybe you compensate for the openness of the open office with behavior that sends a do-not-disturb signal.

BERNSTEIN: If everyone can see you, you want to signal to everyone that you are a hard worker, so you look intensely at your screen. Maybe you put on headphones to block the noise. Guess what? When we signal that, we also tend to signal, “And please don’t interrupt me from my work.” Which may very well have been part of what happened in our studies here.

And then there’s what Ethan Bernstein calls “the transparency paradox.”

BERNSTEIN: Very simply, the transparency paradox is the idea that increasingly transparent, open, observable workplaces can create less transparent employees.

For instance: let’s say you’ve been really productive all morning; now you want to take a break. You want to check your fantasy-football lineup; you want to look up some recipes for dinner. But you don’t want everyone in the office, especially your boss, to see what you’re doing. So: you do it anyway but you’re constantly looking over your shoulder in case you need to shut down the fantasy-football or recipe tabs.

BERNSTEIN: That has implications for productivity, because we spend time on it. We spend energy on it. We spend effort on it. We tend to believe these days that we get our best work done when we can be our authentic selves. Very few of us get up on a stage in front of a large audience, which is somewhat of how some people encounter the open office, and feel we can be our authentic selves.

BLOOM: So, if I have an idea …

That’s the Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom.

BLOOM: … if I go discuss with my colleague or my manager in an open office, I’m terrified that other people would hear. They may pass judgment or rumors can go around.

Bloom has studied this realm for years:

BLOOM: I work a lot on firms and productivity, so what makes some firms more productive, more successful. What makes other firms less successful.

DUBNER: So let me ask you this: a recent paper found that a couple of Fortune 500 companies who switched from cubicles to an open office plan with the hopes of increasing employee collaboration, that in fact the openness led to less collaboration. So, knowing what you know about offices and people, does that surprise you?

BLOOM: Not really. There’s a huge problem with open offices in terms of collaboration. You have no privacy. Whereas if it’s in a slightly more closed environment it’s easier to discuss ideas, to bounce things around.

Or consider the ultimate closed environment: your own home.

BLOOM: One piece of research I did that connected very much to the open office was the benefits of working from home. So working from home has a terrible reputation amongst many people. The nickname “shirking from home.” So I decided to do a scientific study. So we got a large online travel agency to ask a division who wanted to work from home. And we then had them randomize employees by even or odd birthdays into working at home versus working in the office.

DUBNER: Now, this was a travel agency in China, correct?

BLOOM: Yes, so it’s Ctrip, which is China’s largest travel agency. It’s very much like Expedia in the U.S. And stunningly what came out was, one of the biggest driving factors is, it’s just much quieter working from home. They complained so often about the amount of noise and disruption going on in the office. They’re all in an open office and they tell us about people having boyfriend problems, there’s a cake in the breakout room. The World Cup sweepstake. I mean, the most amazing was the woman that told us about her cubicle neighbor who’d have endless conversations with her mum about medical problems, including horrible things like ingrown toenails and some kind of wart issue. I mean what could be more distracting than that? Not surprisingly, in that case, the open office was devastating for her productivity.

DUBNER: So, you find that overall, working from home raises what exactly? Is it productivity? Is it happiness?

BLOOM: So we found working from home raises productivity by 13 percent. Which is massive. That’s almost an extra day a week. So a), much more productive, massively more productive, way more than anyone predicted. And b), they seemed a lot happier; their attrition rates, so how frequently they quit. Part of this was they didn’t have the commute and all the uncertainty. And they didn’t have to take sick days off. But the other big driver is it’s just so much quieter at home.

DUBNER: You also do write, though, that one of the downsides of working from home was promotion became less likely. Yes?

BLOOM: Yes. We don’t know why, but one argument is “out of sight, out of mind.” They just get forgotten about. And another story would be that actually they need to develop skills of human capital and relationship capital, therefore you need to be in the office to get that, to be promoted. And then the third reason I heard, we talked to people working at home and they’d say, “I don’t want to be promoted, because in order to be promoted, I need to come in the office more so.” I’m happy where I am. It’s not worth it.

DUBNER: “I just want them to leave me alone.”

BLOOM: I mean, the most surprising thing from the Ctrip working-from-home experiment was after the end of the nine months, Ctrip was so happy. They were saving about $2,000 per employee working from home because they are more productive and they saved in office space. So they said, “Okay, everyone can now work from home.” And we discovered of the people in the experiment, about 50 percent of them who had been at home decided to come back into the office. And that seemed like an amazing decision because they’re now choosing to commute for something like 40 minutes each way a day. And also since they are less productive in the office and about half their pay was bonus pay, they’re getting paid less. All in all we calculated, their time and pay was kind of falling by 10 to 15 percent. But they were still coming in. And the reason they told us is it was lonely at home.

So people always joke the three great enemies of working from home is the fridge, the bed, and the television. And some people can handle that and others can’t. And you don’t really know until you have tried it. So what happens is people try it and some people love it and are very productive. Great, they just stick with it, and others try and they loathe it and they come back into the office.

The more you learn about the productivity and happiness of office workers in different settings, the more obvious it is that one key ingredient is often overlooked: choice. Some employees really might be better off at home; others might prefer the cubicle; and some might thrive in an open office. You also have to acknowledge that no one environment will be ideal for every task.

Janet POGUE McLAURIN: So if you stop and think about: how do we spend our time? About half of our time is spent in focus mode, which means that we’re working alone; a little over a quarter of our time is working with others in person; and about 20 percent is working with others virtually.

That’s Janet Pogue McLaurin, from the global design-and-architecture firm Gensler.

POGUE McLAURIN: I’m one of our global workplace practice area leaders.

Given the diversity of tasks required of the modern office worker …

POGUE McLAURIN: … You need the best environment for the task at hand. So, if you’re getting ready to go onto a conference call, instead of taking it at your desk, you may go into a conference room. When you finish that, you may go back to your desk to catch up on email. You may socialize around the cafe area or even take a walking meeting outside. We need to have all these other work settings at our disposal to be able to create a wonderful work experience.

That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? So how do you create that? Let’s start with the basics. Pogue McLaurin acknowledges that many open offices don’t address their key shortcoming.

POGUE McLAURIN: The biggest complaint that we see in open offices that don’t work is the noise. And how do you mitigate noise interruptions and distractions? And that can be noise as well as visual. Being able to design a space that zones the floor in smaller neighborhoods, that tries to get buffers between noisy activities. There’s architectural interventions we can also do, with ceilings and materials and white noise, that may be added to the space. And it’s not about creating too quiet an environment — that can be just as ineffective as a noisy environment. You really want to have enough buzz and energy, but just not hear every word.

You also want to account for what economists call heterogeneous preferences, and what normal people call individual choice.

POGUE McLAURIN: Choice is one of the key drivers of effective workspace, and we have found that the most innovative firms actually offer twice as much choice and exercise on that choice than non-innovative firms do. And choice is really around autonomy, about when and where to work. It could be as simple as having a choice of being able to do focus work in the morning or being able to work at home a day, or in another work setting in the office.

To that end, no two employees are exactly alike — and, more important, no two companies are alike either.

POGUE McLAURIN: I think some common mistakes that organizations do is they try to copy someone else’s design. So if you think it’s a cool idea of something that you saw on the west coast, let’s say it’s a tech firm, and you’re not even a tech firm, and you’re sitting here on the east coast and you try to just copy it verbatim, it doesn’t work. It’s got to reflect how your organization works and the purpose and brand and community that you’re a part of.

So oftentimes, companies would start to adopt what other organizations are doing and say, “Yes, that will save us space, so let’s adopt it,” but they’re missing out by not providing all these other spaces to balance. So they want the efficiency without creating all the other work settings that people need in order to be truly productive.

It’s worth noting that Janet Pogue McLaurin, a principal with a design-and-architecture firm, is arguing that the key to a successful office is: design and architecture. But it’s also worth noting that her firm has done a great deal of research in all different kinds of offices, all different kinds of companies, all over the world.

POGUE McLAURIN: We’ve done several studies in the U.S. and the U.K. But we’ve also done Latin America, Asia, Middle East and we’re just completing a study in Germany.

So: what’s her prognosis for the long-maligned open office?

POGUE McLAURIN: The open office is not dead. Oftentimes people say,“Which is better: private office or open plan?” We measured all types of individual work environments, and what we’ve found is that if you solve for design, noise, and access to people and resources, they perform equally, and one is essentially not better than the other. And the best open plan can be as effective as a private one. And that was a surprise. I love data when it tells you something unexpected.

So do we, Janet Pogue McLaurin. So do we.

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Rebecca Lee Douglas. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Alvin MelatheHarry Huggins and Zack Lapinski. We had help this week from Nellie Osborne. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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