If you work in a news room or on a trading desk, you're probably used to blocking out noise from the person sitting next to you. But many people who don't work in such open environments are loathe to do so, fearing a lack of privacy and an inability to concentrate. Regardless, increasingly many firms are moving their workers out of their offices and cubicles into wall-less "war rooms." And a recent study from scientists at the University of Michigan's School of Information's Collaboratory for Research on Electronic Work shows that putting people together in war rooms--equipped with white boards, flip charts and central work tables--is probably a very good idea for companies and their employees.

Stephanie Teasley and her colleagues--Mayuram Krishnan and Judith Olson of U-M and Lisa Covi, now at Rutgers University--studied six software development teams at a major automobile company, all of which were new to working in a war room. They tracked the teams' productivity using standard industry measures and observation sessions--sitting in on meetings and conference calls. When they compared this productivity data to what the company had already collected about teams working in traditional environments, they found that the war room workers were more than twice as productive. In a follow-up study of 11 war room teams, the developers were four times more productive.

And better yet, the employees liked the environment more than they had expected, according to questionnaires distributed before and after the study. In interviews, they said they had learned to tune out distractions--and benefited from overhearing other conversations and having other team members nearby to offer advice when they became stuck. "Although the teammates were not looking forward to working in close quarters, over time they realized the benefits of having people at hand, for coordination, problem solving and learning," Teasley says. "With the growing push for using technology to allow people to work in virtual teams, this study shows us the value of having seamless access to team members and helps us to envision how technology might best be used to support teams that cannot be radically collocated.