open-plan office Today, roughly 70% of U.S. offices have few to no partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. The open-plan office is traced back to “office landscaping,” a design technique pioneered by German consultants Quickborner in the 1950s. Conventional wisdom holds that the absence of walls fosters camaraderie among coworkers. It even spurs impromptu conversations which blossom into innovations. This is, of course, in addition to the fact that a greater number of workers fit in an open-plan office, making it more most cost-effective for many businesses.  

The Open Office Today

Although popular for decades, the open-plan office has been the subject of recent spectacle. This is, in part, thanks to the high-profile workplace architecture of established tech giants like Google and Facebook, as well as relative newcomers like Airbnb. In today’s open-plan office a sea of organically arranged half-height cubicles is no longer what you’ll find; it now includes arcades, basketball courts, full-size pirate ships, and hydrogen-bomb-proof greenhouses. The recent past has seen a boom in startups looking to emulate established companies who project their success through creative office aesthetics. In fact, one of the side effects is a growing tendency to associate innovation and financial solvency with spaces that blur the distinction between conference room and playground. This tendency, coupled with the firmly entrenched belief in the open-plan office for harnessing employees’ creative potential, has effectively made an open-plan office a prerequisite for success. Although most businesses don’t have the resources to build an indoor tree house, many do have the ability to implement smaller environmental changes that work toward the same goal. For example, a cluster of individual cubicles could be replaced with communal tables to form a shared workspace. The quiet nook where employees pause for a moment of respite may now be occupied by a foosball table. There is arising tide of businesses seeking increasingly creative ways to give their workspaces a playful, egalitarian edge. Which leaves us wondering: does the underlying philosophy of the open-plan office actually hold water? open-plan office workplace design

The Impact on Productivity

The growing consensus among business writers is a surprisingly resounding “no.”. Some authors call for more walls in the workplace, citing numerous studies that suggest open-plan offices hamper productivity and reduce physical health. A survey of available research on the open-plan office reveals a rather substantial number of studies (particularly since the 1980s), with a striking level of consistency across their findings. To point out a few major trends, workers unsatisfied with their office environment blamed noise distractions and lack of privacy. This was especially true for those performing managerial and technical tasks. In particular, irrelevant speech contributes directly to mental workload and slows completion rates. Irrelevant speech conditions also result in higher workload ratings. A two-hour noise simulation correlated open-plan conditions with decreased motivation and impaired memory function. A similar study found that workers are less likely to make ergonomic adjustments in open-plan environments. (9) This is noteworthy when considering that poor posture in the workplace is strongly associated with a myriad of physical health problems including spinal disorders and cardiovascular disease. This snippet of negative data may paint a rather bleak picture for the state of the open-plan office. However, the trends do suggest concrete ways to optimize work environments, like increasing privacy and reducing ambient noise. Furniture specialists Steelcase have done promising work on this front. Two major studies they conducted with global research firm IPSOS found only 11% of global workers satisfied with their work environments, and 95% of North American workers desired additional private space in the office. Inspired by these findings, Steelcase designed five “Quiet Spaces” to easily incorporate into open-plan offices. The five spaces range from 48 to 100 square feet to accommodate both personal and collaborative uses. open-plan office workplace design

Making a Move Towards an Open Office

Emerging design trends clue us into what many more offices may look like in the future. The office should strike an attentive balance between a fluid, open work-space and smaller areas dedicated to privacy and focus. We achieve this at PerkSpot with our quiet lounge (complete with adjustable lighting!). In addition, we boast of three fully enclosed rooms for employees to use however they see fit. Therefore, it may be time for many businesses to consider evaluating their office design. Although, making productive changes won’t require anything as dramatic as enlisting the architectural prowess of Frank Gehry. Increasing employee access to privacy can be as simple as arranging several bookshelves to form a sequestered space. We don’t have to abandon the ideal image of a sprawling, quirky space where every employee is as friendly as they are productive; where a company’s typography themed desks are as cutting edge as the service it provides (or perhaps vice versa?).   We just have to remember that an office’s design should address the needs of the employees first. These typically include the ability to work in relative privacy when collaborating coworkers becomes a noisy distraction.

Emerging research suggests that exercise is just as important for your mind as it is for your body. Numerous studies find that different types of exercise affect the brain in an equally varied number of ways. Both promote cognitive function and preserving brain health.  Let’s discuss the science behind this research and dive into a few examples that have positive implications for productivity.

exercise can make you more productive

What Science Says…

Studies show exercise can increase the presence of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) in the brain. BDNF is a critical protein for the brain’s ability to heal, adapt, learn, and form memories. Until a study led by cell biologist Bruce Spiegelman, researchers remained uncertain about how exercise actually induces elevated levels of BDNF. Spiegelman and his team discovered that irisin, a hormone secreted by muscle cells after endurance exercise, is essentially a “chemical messenger” that promotes expression of BDNF, as well as genes linked to learning skills and memory formation. The discovery of irisin has enabled the scientific community to research the effect of exercise on cognitive function with more precision than ever.

A Georgia Institute of Technology study found that intense resistance training for periods as short as 20 minutes can boost episodic memory (memory of specific past events) by 10%. A study by David Jacobs linked aerobic fitness during one’s 20’s and increased memory performance later on in life. Two studies by the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois (one on children and one on adults age 60+) measured increased white matter integrity in those with higher levels of aerobic fitness. White matter has been deemed a “superhighway” connecting the brain’s regions; more compact white matter is associated with increased attention and faster cognitive function.

Exercise for Your Mind

While we still have years worth of research before we fully understand how exercise impacts the brain, it is clear that many forms of voluntary physical activity enhance mental performance and protect against neurological disease. The latter is certainly an important trend for the 21st-century American worker. We see this as the average retirement age has slowly but steadily increased for the last two decades.

On a related note, exercising for 150 minutes per week improves sleep quality up to 65%. This is especially significant when considering that poor sleep quality may lead to long-term loss of grey matter. This important substance makes up brain regions responsible for muscle control, sensory perception, memory, and decision making. Furthermore, scientists attribute the lack of proper sleep with mental fatigue in the workplace than one’s actual workload. By boosting cognitive function and reducing mental fatigue, exercise can effectively lighten your workload without actually reducing your output!

We here at PerkSpot know that starting a new exercise routine can be a challenge. That’s why we offer PerkSpot Health and Wellness. Your employees save big on local gym memberships and nutrition programs, and your business benefits from healthier, happier workers!

invest in happiness

It is a corporate truism that happiness begets productivity. There is a slew of data to support this idea, such as the extensive work of Teresa Amabile or this Gallup poll by James Harter. More recently, perks have emerged as the choice tactic for companies seeking to boost employee happiness. So much so that companies, from entrepreneurial startups to established enterprises, hire perk managers to engineer creative perk programs.

We here at PerkSpot know that not all perks are created equal.

We are also aware that not every business can afford a $10,000 per employee desk allowance or a month-long office adventure to Thailand. We’ve dug deeper into the wealth of research on the happiness-productivity model and hope that our findings will suggest some cost-effective ways to invest in workplace happiness that will ensure your highest ROI. A number of recent studies point out that broader psychological factors have the strongest implications for increased workplace productivity. Professor John Zelenski demonstrated that “positive affect” is more strongly tied to high productivity than either “job satisfaction” or “quality of work life.”. In another study, Thomas Wright found that increased job satisfaction yields increased productivity only when employees already have a high level of psychological well-being (PWB). Employees who score low on “life satisfaction” stay home an average of 15 more days a year, states Gallup Healthways. Another Gallup study showed that retail stores scoring high on employee life satisfaction generated $32 million more in earnings than less happy competitors. The data suggests managers should focus on perks that promote more general psychological factors like life satisfaction and psychological well-being. An office ping-pong table may seem sure to increase employee happiness. However, MetLife’s Benefits Trends Study suggests that offering a financial education program may be more effective. According to the study, 54% of employees worry about their financial security; while 51% of employers strongly agree employees are less productive when they worry about personal financial problems. 57% of employers agree that offering financial education to employees has a positive impact on productivity.

Don’t underestimate the benefit of perks that cost you nothing.

A recent study by Nicholas Bloom and John Roberts focused on China’s largest travel agency. They found employees permitted to work from home were 13% more productive and 50% less likely to leave their jobs. Considering the cost of replacing an employee can range from 90% to 200% of their annual salary, this is significant. In fact, FastCo.Design says you may see similar upticks in productivity from changing your office environment. They suggest converting a portion of your office into spaces akin to employees’ homes (think sofas, café tables, etc.). Increased time with family and friends can strongly reinforce the high levels of psychological well-being that promote job satisfaction. It’s no surprise, then, that the Society of Human Resource Management reports that 30% of employers offer discounted tickets to movies, theme parks, museums, and more in order to encourage more family outings. We hope that our research sheds some light on the burgeoning world of workplace perks. Perks geared toward enhancing employees’ lives outside the office can result in the largest jump in job satisfaction and productivity. The above examples suggest some cost-effective starting points for anybody looking to build a perks program into their office culture. Want more insights like these? Subscribe using the form to the right!