In Brief

Open work spaces foster more employee productivity, learning and camaraderie than do closed offices or cubicles, which are also more expensive, finds a research team led by psychologist Franklin Becker, PhD, director of the Cornell University International Workplace Studies Program.

In fact, the high-paneled cubicles reminiscent of "Dilbert" appear to undermine worker productivity the most, while closed offices have a particularly isolating effect, discovered Becker, colleague William Sims, PhD, and their graduate students after interviewing, surveying and observing 229 employees of eight small technology firms. Their results appear in a report available on the Web at http://iwsp.human.cornell.edu.

While many of the workers--particularly older ones--initially said they preferred closed offices for privacy and concentration reasons, they often switched their top choice to open offices, claiming that the increased access to co-workers improved communication. Many said that open spaces allow employees to better read each others' cues: When a co-worker appears busy, others stay away and wait for a better time to interrupt. By comparison, offices and cubicles hide employees, which means others more often interrupt at bad times.

Making matters worse, found the researchers, cubicles create the illusion of privacy, so some employees feel free to have long, loud phone or face-to-face conversations that distract others. This isn't to say that people don't also socialize in open offices, says Becker. But, out of consideration for others, the interactions tend to be shorter and often cover work matters, too. The result, he says, is efficient, impromptu idea generation and decision-making and less need for delayed formal meetings.

"What might not have happened until tomorrow at 2 happens today," says Becker. "The whole process is speeded up--productivity improves."

Becker concedes that no office environment is perfect. In open offices, for example, there will still be those who irritate peers by bellowing into the phone. Wireless phones may be one solution to such problems, he says, but a more ideal one is giving workers a choice of work environments to fit the demands of different tasks--what he calls the "cafeteria-style office."

"The point is to flip the predominant office thinking so that employees spend most of their time together as a team and less of their time going off to work alone," says Becker. "The open office is a tremendous opportunity to share knowledge and learn by osmosis."

--B. MURRAY