Promising Practices Promising PracticesPromising Practices
A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

The Optimal Office


Though the “open plan” modern office, with its sea of desks, might look like the offspring of a newsroom or a trading floor, it can also trace its heritage to 1960s Germany. There, two brothers who worked in their father’s office-furniture business kicked off the Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape,” movement, which sought to boost communication and efficiency and de-emphasize status. As the idea took hold in North America in the decades that followed, employers switched from traditional offices with one or two people per room to large, wall-less spaces. By the turn of the century, roughly two-thirds of U.S. workers spent their days in open-plan offices [1].

But as the layout became commonplace, problems emerged. A 2002 longitudinal study of Canadian oil-and-gas-company employees who moved from a traditional office to an open one found that on every aspect measured, from feelings about the work environment to co-worker relationships to self-reported performance, employees were significantly less satisfied in the open office [2]. One explanation for why this might be is that open offices prioritize communication and collaboration but sacrifice privacy. In 1980, a group of psychology researchers published a study suggesting that this sacrifice might have unintended consequences. They found that “architectural privacy” (the ability to close one’s door, say) went hand in hand with a sense of “psychological privacy” (feeling “control over access to oneself or one’s group”). And a healthy dose of psychological privacy correlated with greater job satisfaction and performance [3].

With a lack of privacy comes noise—the talking, typing, and even chewing of one’s co-workers. A 1998 study found that background noise, whether or not it included speech, impaired both memory and the ability to do mental arithmetic [4], while another study found that even music hindered performance [5]. There’s also the question of lighting. Open offices tend to cluster cubicles away from windows, and a forthcoming study shows that on workdays, employees without windows get an average of 47 fewer minutes of sleep than those with windows, and have worse sleep quality overall [6]. Artificial light has its own downsides. One pair of researchers found that bright overhead light intensifies emotions, enhancing perceptions of aggression and sexiness—which could lead to a lack of focus during meetings if arguments get heated, or co-workers get overheated [7].

To add another tangle to this knot, different personality types respond differently to the conditions of office life. For example, the study on background music found its negative effects to be much more pronounced for introverts than for extroverts. Even the office coffee machine could be hurting some employees. Although a moderate dose of caffeine was recently found to enhance long-term information retention [8], caffeine has previously been shown to hinder introverts’ cognitive performance during the workday [9].

Further complicating matters, cubicle dwellers are forever hunting for ways to improve their office experience. The latest craze is the standing desk, inspired by the widely reported health risks of sitting all day. One study found that people who sat at least six hours a day had a higher risk of premature death than those who sat three hours or fewer—regardless of physical-activity level [10]. But being on one’s feet presents its own health risks: standing for more than eight hours a day has been tied to back and foot pain, as well as preterm birth [11].

So what’s a research-minded boss to do? Easy: Give employees their own private offices, with plenty of sun, and turn off the overhead lights. Supply the introverts with noise-canceling headphones and decaf, but pump the extroverts full of caffeine and even let them listen to music now and then. And don’t let any of us sit too much—or stand too much. Maybe we can crouch.

The Studies:

[1] “Space and Project Management Benchmarks” (International Facility Management Association, 2010)

[2] Brennan et al., “Traditional Versus Open Office Design” (Environment and Behavior, May 2002)

[3] Sundstrom et al., “Privacy at Work: Architectural Correlates of Job Satisfaction and Job Performance” (Academy of Management Journal, March 1980)

[4] Banbury and Berry, “Disruption of Office-Related Tasks by Speech and Office Noise” (British Journal of Psychology, 1998)

[5] Furnham and Strbac, “Music Is as Distracting as Noise” (Ergonomics, 2002)

[6] Cheung et al., “Impact of Workplace Daylight Exposure on Sleep, Physical Activity, and Quality of Life” (Sleep, Abstract Supplement, 2013)

[7] Xu and Labroo, “Incandescent Affect: Turning on the Hot Emotional System With Bright Light” (Journal of Consumer Psychology, April 2014)

[8] Borota et al., “Post-Study Caffeine Administration Enhances Memory Consolidation in Humans” (Nature Neuroscience, Feb. 2014)

[9] Revelle et al., “The Interactive Effect of Personality, Time of Day, and Caffeine” (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, March 1980)

[10] Patel et al., “Leisure Time Spent Sitting in Relation to Total Mortality in a Prospective Cohort of US Adults” (American Journal of Epidemiology, Aug. 2010)

[11] McCulloch, “Health Risks Associated With Prolonged Standing” (Work, Jan. 2002)

(Image via Gazlast/

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.