Pods were meant to fix open plan offices. They haven’t

Framery / WIRED

Open plan offices were supposed to be great. They promised eye contact and collaboration, spontaneous creativity and human connection, bright open spaces and communal tea rounds. But what we’ve ended up with are loud rooms full of busy people desperately trying to concentrate.

It’s a big problem. Not just in the sense that it’s irritating to be able to hear someone else’s conversation more clearly than your own thoughts, but because the built-in distractions are actually detrimental to productivity. “A lot of research says that unless you get into 18 minutes of concentrated flow or deep work you’re not effective,” says Philip Ross, chief executive of UnWork, a management consultancy focused on the future of work. But that kind of uninterrupted workflow is rare in an open plan setting. “It’s killed people’s ability to focus and concentrate.”

Valtteri Hongisto, research group leader at the Turku University of Applied Sciences in Finland, has studied the acoustics of open plan offices for 20 years. He found that “if you’re doing highly concentration-demanding work, then your performance is reduced by ten per cent if you are exposed to speech that is intelligible,” he says. “But if you don’t hear the words then performance is not reduced at all.”

A ten per cent drop in productivity isn’t something companies can ignore – that’s a lot of money going to waste. Money they were probably hoping to save by opting for an open plan office in the first place.

“It’s tricky because open plan offices have become popular because it’s cheaper for companies to squeeze more staff into them,” says Claire Shepherd. “But I don’t know how much cheaper it is in the long run.” Shepherd is the founder and managing director of Seeds, one of the endless number of companies currently selling pods to organisations that want the flexibility of an open plan office, but still want their employees to be able to focus.

In this context “pod” means a little standalone office; they come in a variety of forms. Some of them are clear boxes, big enough for one person to stand in while they make a phone call. Others are larger, have built in tables and chairs, so a single person could get some work done or a group could have a quick meeting. They all promise one thing: you can have your open plan office and work in it too.

Shepherd’s pod is one of the fancy ones, it looks like a giant seed and is big enough for six people to sit around a table. But how effective are these pods at solving our open plan problem?

The answer? It depends.

The severity of the open-plan-versus-productivity issue means pods can do quite a bit of good, but they could also just become extra surfaces for noise to bounce off.

“Pods are better than not having pods, let’s put it that way,” says Rachel Morrison, associate professor in organisational behaviour and work psychology at Auckland University of Technology. “They’re definitely better than having no choice at all.” In her research on open plan offices, she found that giving people a variety of options is key. “We don’t all need our own office,” she says. “There are lots of ways that people can have quiet and privacy and no distractions, but it does need to be done carefully.”

Every company has different aims and job roles, and each employee is going to have a different preferred working environment, so no one size fits all. “The best thing is to match,” says Morrison, “the more opportunity for people to match what they’re doing with the space that they’re working in, the better.”

It’s a company’s job to analyse who its staff is and cater the space to their needs, assuming it wants them to be as productive as possible. Ross calls this “activity-based working”. Pods fit into it but aren’t the only option. “Rather than saying you’ve either got to use an open plan office desk or a pod, a better solution is to think more about people’s activity and create spaces for those activities,” he says. An on-site library, where anyone can go for guaranteed silence when they need to get important tasks done, for example. Or real, air-conditioned, bookable office space. “Pods are one element in this toolbox,” says Ross, suggesting they work well for a quick 15-minute phone call. “You’re standing up, it’s good for your health. But once you start saying we’re going to use them for a two-hour meeting, it gets less exciting.”

The most practical use for these pods seems to be for phone calls. If the one person disturbing the whole office with a loud phone call could be muted, that would make a huge impact. But not all pods are created equal when it comes to containing sound. According to Hongisto, you need a pod that will reduce the noise of whoever is inside by 30 decibels, “in an open plan office that means you no longer hear what the person inside is talking about.” Anything less than that and you’re wasting your money.

But loud phone calls may not be a problem for every office, and there’s no point buying a pod if you have no use for it. The first thing to do is analyse the needs of your workers. Does your consultancy share space with the sales team? Then several stand-up phone booths would be worth an investment. That wouldn’t solve any problems in a design agency though, because people need a screen to be productive. There you may want a couple of larger pods with built-in tables, plugs for laptops and internet access. If the vast majority of your employees all need quiet space to work, however, a library may be a better investment instead.

If you decide you need a pod (and you probably have), then make sure it’s a good one. “If you buy a poor pod then you’ll be dissatisfied,” says Hongisto. “The quality needs to be high to have the feeling that it’s useful.” He’s talking about noise cancellation and comfort – if the pod is an undesirable place to be, people won’t use it, and you won’t reap the productivity benefits.

Small additions can make a big difference. Ross suggests adding sensors to monitor air quality, and lights to warn people off if the pod has got a little fragrant. Shepherd says her Seedpods allow you to connect via Bluetooth to turn the whole inside of the pod into a speaker, which is very useful for Seeds client Universal Music. Make sure the pod you choose is just as useful for you.

Of course, pods aren’t a perfect solution. “The best option would be that the building is designed according to the needs of the user, so if people need their own rooms they should have them,” says Hongisto. But, realistically, it’s not just companies who have embraced the open plan office trend, it’s also building owners, so we’re stuck. “They don’t want to build closed offices anymore because they are not easy to rent to the next user,” he adds, so it’s up to individual companies to adjust their space. “In the situation where you have an open plan office and you need to solve the problem of privacy or concentration then,” he says, “the pod is the most efficient way.”

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