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Open Offices Make You Less Open

July 6th, 2018 · 81 comments

On Spatial Boundaries and Face-to-Face Interaction

Why do companies deploy open office layouts? A major justification is the idea that removing spatial boundaries between colleagues will generate increased collaboration and smarter collective intelligence.

As I learned in a fascinating new study, published earlier this week in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, there was good reason to believe that this might be true. As the study’s authors, Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban, note:

“[T]he notion that propinquity, or proximity, predicts social interaction — driving the formation of social ties and therefore information exchange and collaboration — is one of the most robust findings in sociology.”

But when researchers turned their attention to the specific impact of open offices on interaction, the results were mixed.  Perhaps troubled by this inconsistency, Bernstein and Turban decided to get to the bottom of this issue.

Prior studies of open offices had relied on imprecise measures such as self-reported activity logs to quantify interactions before and after a shift to an open office plan. Bernstein and Turban tried something more accurate: they had subjects wear devices around their neck that directly measured every face-to-face encounter. They also used email and IM server logs to determine exactly how much the volume of electronic interactions changed.

Here’s a summary of what they found:

  • Contrary to what’s predicted by the sociological literature, the 52 participants studied spent 72% less time interacting face-to-face after the shift to an open office layout. To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the office redesign, participants accumulated an average of around 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to the open layout, the same participants dropped to around 1.7 hours of face-to-face interaction per day.
  • At the same time, the shift to an open office significantly increased digital communication. After the redesign, participants sent 56% more emails (and were cc’d 41% more times), and the number of IM messages sent increased by 67%.

Not surprisingly, this shift from face-to-face to electronic interaction made employees less effective. As Berstein and Turban summarize:

“[In] an internal and confidential management review, [the company’s] executives reported to us qualitatively that productivity, as defined by the metrics used by their internal performance management system, had declined after the redesign to eliminate spatial boundaries.”

What is surprising, however, is the fact that face-to-face interactions declined so sharply in the first place. My critiques of open offices (c.f., Deep Work) assumed that removing spatial barriers would generate more face-to-face disruptions. In this study, removing barriers instead decreased these interactions while increasing the amount of electronic distraction.

The negative impact is the same — more interruptions = less deep work = poor return on investment in the organization’s attention capital — but the underlying mechanism is not what I expected.

What explains this unexpected result? Here’s an intriguing hypothesis advanced by the study’s authors:

“Like social insects which swarm within functionally-determined zones ‘partitioned’ by spatial boundaries (e.g. hives, nests or schools), human beings — despite their greater cognitive abilities — may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality…”

When you remove any semblance of structure to human interaction, people get overloaded and withdrawal into private, electronic cocoons.

This is just one study concerning one company and only 52 employees. But it underscores a conclusion that I’ve increasingly come to believe: when it comes to the main challenge of knowledge work, which is figuring out how to get the most value out of human brains working together to process information, we still have no idea what we’re doing.

(Hat tip: Masha.)

######

An unrelated administrative note: The cover and summary of my next book, Digital Minimalism (due out in February),  just made its way to Amazon. Obviously, I’ll tell you more about this project as the publication date gets closer.

81 thoughts on “Open Offices Make You Less Open

  1. Kurt S. says:

    1. Did they say how they measured “face-to-face” specifically? Does being able to see Bob and Suzy over my monitor count?

    2. And because I can see two people, might it make me more likely to just e-mail John, Paul, George, and Ringo instead of yelling across the room or getting up?

    1. Gregor Z. says:

      The first link in the article points to the reseach paper…So I guess you are just lazy?

      1. RW says:

        Why choose to insult someone when you could’ve just said hey, maybe you didn’t see the link, check it out?

  2. Viliami says:

    Does Digital Minimalism sort of go into more detail of your adoption of social media/ certain digital devices as a tool that should only be used under certain situations, and to adopt such a tool only if their benefits outweigh their drawbacks, instead of using it constantly in your daily life?

    1. Study Hacks says:

      It definitely includes the idea. The DM approach is to start by figuring out what you value, and then working backwards and asking for each such value, what is the “best” way to use technology to support this value (if any)? The result is you’ll likely spend much less time online, but also be getting much more benefit from the tech.

      1. Adolfo Neto says:

        Cal,
        Do you know this book?
        How to Break Up With Your Phone: The 30-Day Plan to Take back Your Life by Catherine Price https://amzn.to/2MV1ubP

        I have just finished reading it and I found it excellent.

  3. Mike says:

    Hello Cal, I follow your blog since i discovered it two years ago.
    You talked about so many systems and tips over more than a decade.
    What would be your advice for students TODAY ?

  4. YL says:

    Cal,
    I am a long time reader and a big believer in Deep Work. I also happen to work at a company who has fully embraced the open office culture. What would your advice be for staying focused and getting deep, given that I spend my day working in an open office surrounded by dozens of coworkers?

    1. Anatoli says:

      I am on the same boat, mate.

      >I tried to explain the concept of Deep Work to management – they just smiled

      >When I intentionally ignore my emails to concentrate and accomplish work – this is perceived as I intentionally DON’T want to do work.

      >When I ignore colleagues conversations, that occur almost every 5 minutes, in order to DO work – I am perceived as unsocial.

      I’ve come to conclusion that it would be better just to get another job without the “open office culture”.

      1. Andrew Lynch says:

        I have the same issue: so often I will take my laptop and just work in a meeting room alone for an hour or so, then head back into the open office area to answer emails and any questions from colleagues for 15-30 minutes, then back to the meeting room for more deep work. This routine seems to work well for me.

  5. Tariq Fancy says:

    I wonder if at least some part of the impetus toward open desk environments is driven by cost savings? The productivity benefits are dubious, as you note, yet I still see companies looking to do it. I can’t imagine that the cost savings related to less space and materials usage (replacing single offices and spacious cubes with smaller open desks in the same office space) aren’t a driver here. (But no one wants to say that; they’d rather tout supposed productivity gains!)

    1. Study Hacks says:

      I’ve definitely heard the cost-saving argument. In some cases, it might be a motivating factor. But certainly not in all cases (c.f., Apple and Facebook, who have no shortage of cash, shifting to open offices in their new buildings). I think there really is a vague but pervasive sense that the layout was more creative or modern…

      1. Marko says:

        The open concept office has become corporate orthodoxy; to propose differently is to be a heretic and worse seen as advocating for a return to a hierarchal work place where the senior employees get the prime real estate next to a window or in a corner suite. There’s almost no thought given to the effectiveness or practicality, instead it has primarily egalitarian motives. This being the case you could trot out countless studies about its efficacy and the argument will still get lost unfortunately. I work in an office that’s so open-concept it’s like a morgue – everyone is afraid to speak candidly or personally because everyone else will hear. Project managers forward almost every call on their cell phone and are constantly getting up from their desks to walk into an empty meeting room so they can have unheard conversations. It isn’t useful or healthy. But I can’t see it ever coming to an end.

        1. M. Ikram says:

          I think you got it right why open office concept is a failure, and meeting rooms are sort of being overused in an open office environment.

      2. Steve Gale says:

        In response to the opening paragraph of this fascinating article – increased collaboration and therefore productivity is indeed a major justification for open offices, but it is a secondary one. The primary one is cost. It costs a lot more to divide space, and that space is then difficult to reconfigure when you hire more people or reorganise teams. There is a constant effort to make rigid buildings match the flexible businesses they accommodate. It’s a never ending quest.

  6. EA says:

    Can’t wait for your book!
    What’s your opinion of cubicles?

  7. Melanie says:

    Cal,

    I worked at a company that moved to the open office layout, and this article captures my first-hand experience perfectly. Because we had no physical barriers, we sort of made these informal barriers – ie not talking to someone if they had headphones on or if they pointedly didn’t make eye contact. I found myself using our internal instant messenger for people sitting right next to me, something I had never done before, because I didn’t want to constantly disturb the people around me if the area was quiet. My company was also very open that cost savings was a factor –we moved from 5 floors to 2 by packing everyone in. I did not like it and it was a factor in my decision to leave the company. My current company is looking to do the same thing though, so I suppose I will have to be the one to adapt.

  8. Anatoli says:

    Give your new book to Mark Zuckerberg for review! 😉

  9. Carl says:

    If you have your own office, you can have an impromptu meeting with a colleague without disturbing the surrounding workers.

    1. James says:

      That’s a major factor. Some communications in any office are going to be confidential–discussions of pay, scheduling, contract negotiations, etc. And some you simply don’t want to involve other people in–if you’re not bringing Joe into the project, you may not want to include Joe in the discussion so that he doesn’t feel slighted. In an open office, any verbal communication is public. The only private communications are electronic, so that’s what people default to.

  10. Daniel Ng says:

    Great posting. Don’t show this to coworking/flex/shared office spaces as they wouldn’t be happy to read that their model is flawed.

  11. Wow! That’s really fascinating.

    I find it to be true. When I have time alone and then intentional time with people, I would never be on my phone/space out, etc. But when you have to be by lots of people for long periods of time, you start engaging in these behaviors when you’re with them because you simply need some space.

    To your brilliance!
    Elizabeth

    1. Patrick McCann says:

      I work in an environment with high cubicles (thank god), but I still need to wear headphones and play background noise to shut out the sound of my loud co-workers. Though I do think I’m more easily distracted than most…. STILL – the thought of having to move back into an open office environment gives me the chills.

      1. If you had lower walls, your colleagues would know that you are there and not be quite so loud. The high panel walls provide a “sense” or privacy when you really have the same if not less than with lower panels. Basically, if I can’t see you, I will speak as though you aren’t there because I don’t realize that I am disrupting someone. If I can see the people working, I am more aware of my surroundings. Just some food for thought.

  12. Angelica says:

    I really hope your book brings something new to the digital minimalism conversation. The literature I come across on the topic is so repetitive I almost feel like there nothing more to say. Don’t use addictive apps, restrict notifications, and delete social media. Cal, what more is there to say?

  13. Elizabeth says:

    I think maybe they’re also overlooking the unfortunate “CYA” mentality in the corporate world. I have never been in an office where a paper trail wasn’t critical to me getting my big important things done, though it’s probably more prevalent in some roles than others (those dealing with C-level and VP-level bosses who don’t want the responsibility of writing anything down or remembering things on their own). My last job at a startup did hate email, but then email just turned into Slack, and paper trails were still just as important. (Obviously “important” is relative…) I wonder how much of this culture accounts for the massive email usage even in an open office.

  14. Mark says:

    Hi Cal,
    Just wanted to shoot you a quick thanks, and this looks like the best way to reach you. I’ve been using some of your suggestions for work, school, etc for about a year now, and they’ve transformed my life.

    I got kicked out of Michigan’s engineering school 10 years ago, and while i managed to get things together enough to get a degree elsewhere, I always regretted that failure and felt that I was coming up a little short.

    Fast forward to today, I’m 31, have a 3 month old, job, house, etc, and I’m back in school studying computer science. Your advice helped me ground the question of what I want to do with my life and the details of how to pursue it. I’m a straight A student for the first time in my life since high school! Thanks!

  15. Beatrix says:

    I worked at a couple of sites of a large corporation for a number of years. They extensively used the “open space” concept.
    My experience was that people working there, including myself, looked exactly like the individual in the picture: isolated from their environment and immersed in their laptop/desktop computer work for about 90% of their time.
    My boss one day told me that he knew an acquaintance of mine because he had worked sitting side by side next to my friend for 4 years. Then he told me: “However, I don’t have any clue in what he was working on over there”.

  16. David says:

    What is your opinion of the growing movement to desks that allow optional standing?

    1. Ruth says:

      We’ve all had them since my office was renovated, and it’s great to have a desk that’s always the right height, whoever you are, whether sitting or standing. The whole desk moves up and down, which is optimal.

      The option to stand means you can have a stretch; some jobs are better done standing; and some people find it is better for their health (it’s probably better for all of us) and stand most or even all the time. I’d never want to go back to a static desk now.

  17. Nancy Johnson says:

    Open office space may discourage social interaction and communication if workers recognize that their activity and conversation distracts or adversely affects other workers in the area.
    This is similar to a failing of open classrooms of the 1970s. Open school layouts may have looked cool and “flexible”, but teachers in these buildings have to avoid activities that generate much noise because it affects other classes. Walls and doors can be a good thing.

  18. Sandhill says:

    Given the cost of cubical systems, I wonder how many companies are claiming to promote open offices, when instead they’re just cheap.

  19. Estelle Dodson says:

    When I was in an open office for a short period, I didn’t want to disturb others so I rarely had the conversations I needed to have, this included saying things I should have said on conference calls. I found when I moved back into an office, my team came in more frequently to ask questions, get advice, tell me things etc. I didn’t ask them why, but I suspect they didn’t want to disturb my open office neighbors either and they didn’t feel comfortable asking questions within earshot of so many others. It definitely squashed the very communications I/we needed to be having.

  20. Terry Edwards says:

    Or, maybe people just resent having some jerk ‘social engineer’ tell them how to do everything. Hell, I thought we were supposed be working alone at home by now anyway.

  21. DK says:

    Being in my 50’s I’ve worked in both opened and closed office environments as well as a worker and as upper management. The arguments for cost saving and interactivity, both sound plausible but most of the time it has more to do with stature of the employees and controlling the environment workers are in. I can understand the reduction of face-to-face conversations in an open office due to the ability for everyone to see and possibly hear the conversation, plus add that when people spend hours in their own work space they look for reasons to “stretch their legs” meaning they will often interact with someone in person rather than electronically as a reason to move about.

  22. Kazim says:

    This makes sense in hindsight. With open floor plans, we maintain sight with people we want to interact with. We can always look over the monitor and with that aspect covered, it’s comfortable to revert back to electronic conversations to convey messages.

    With spatial boundaries, we are not in sight of each other at all times, and hence, feel the need to interact/go over to the other person more often.

  23. Dennis says:

    Very interesting. From my own experience I worked in cubicle farm environments for years up until 4 years ago. One thing I always thought was annoying in the cubicle world was co-workers who would wear headphones all day and listen to music. It was nearly impossible at times to get them to turn around and acknowledge you when you had a question. After working about 6 months in the new open office job, I had no choice but to wear headphones all day or I wouldn’t get a damn thing done with all of the distractions. I don’t like open office environments.

  24. Telecommuter says:

    I had a short contract job with a large company, that had an open structure. I was hired to edit lots of documents. Loud meetings with scribbling on white boards went on next to my desk for hours each day, and colleagues failed to get drafts back to me or others on schedule. A coworker suggested I take my laptop to a quiet spot, so I found a closet to work in. One day, one of the full time employees shot me in the back of the head with a nerd gun. The last straw was that I finished dozens of drafts in 8 weeks, and not one was returned to me with requested work completed. I had my own peaceful office at, so I went back to freelancing from there.

  25. Holly says:

    My company uses open concept for certain projects, and I see that many people just find other places to work (open conference rooms, work from home, go to the cafeteria). Personally, I have no problem going to someone’s cubicle to have a work discussion, but if I have to talk to someone in an open concept workspace I will try to book a conference room. I am a manager with a cubicle, and I am able to work on reviews and confidential documents at my desk, but I don’t think I would with an open concept. I would end up doing this work from home.

    Enjoyed the article!
    Holly

  26. joe says:

    Doesn’t make sense. How does someone doing office work spend 5.8 hours PER DAY on face-to-face interaction… That is like 80% of the work day spent chatting and not on the computer working. Something about that figure sounds wrong

  27. John Henning says:

    You, oh so young, experts should try talking to some older, near retirement workers. Back in the 60s and beyond, everyone worked in “open offices” with only upper management lucky enough to have actual offices. Then along came smaller work areas and cubicles to limit interruptions and encourage individual concentration. This “open office” concept is great if you really don’t want to get any effective work accomplished.

  28. I wonder whether politics has something to do with this. Not the nefarious kind, necessarily, just the ordinary human kind: managing who knows who you talk to a lot, what the informal power structures and influence structures look like, etc. In an open office, EVERYONE is going to know if you get up and walk across the room to talk to someone fairly frequently; if you email that person, not so much. You know Some People will start to feel left out of little work groups, and you may not want that, so you don’t form them. Etc.

  29. J A says:

    This isn’t surprising:

    (1) The subgroups of people who get along well with each other and less well with other subgroups are not going to feel free to engage with each other in the same way they would when afforded some measure of privacy. This isn’t even about friendliness, it could simply be connected with how they conceptualize or carry out the work they do.

    (2) We’re taught from Pre-K on that being in a room of desks with our peers means we are supposed to sit down, shut up, and work. That aside, if one person is on a phone call (imagine that in an office), everyone else is going to be quiet and…wait for it…email and instant message each other instead.

    (3) What echelon of office was being looked at? When supervisors are policing workers, no one is going to collaborate. When leaders are trying to force people to collaborate, no one is going to collaborate.

  30. Stephen Heater says:

    I totally agree….I worked for a company that had a open floor plan in their NYC headquarters. The reason its done is not for collaboration and communication at least in the business I was in. Its all about the company saving money….the excuse they use is collaboration….which is totally bogus. Absolutely no privacy at all and yes as this article states there is less communication and collaboration.

  31. sean says:

    Thank god someone finally did an actual study on what everyone already knows. It is a manager ploy so they can see you at your desk, and so they can save money on walls.

    Otherwise and especially if you are sensitive to sound or movement distractions, you can never focus. Then there is the one person who is laughing watching a youtube video that everyone has to see because OMG someone popped a huge zit. Then after the 3rd time you quit going to look, and are cast as antisocial, and eventually everyone starts wearing headphones, and using chat protocols so no one else can hear the conversations. Then everyone starts finding other places to go to avoid it.

    Maybe a way to describe it is like being in a board meeting all day everyday with no preparation time.

  32. Jasper says:

    This is a fascinating study. I wonder, though, if it also takes into account the personality types of the employees, managers, and executive officers and the ratio of the types in comparison to each other and the whole (i.e. introverts/extroverts, engineer-types vs. those of social administrative support, etc.). Forcing introverts to have more social interaction, whether directly or indirectly (visual vs. discussion) may overwhelm and frustrate them; whereas it may have the direct opposite effect with extroverts.

    I believe this is actually more of a psychological study rather than one of a measurement of production…which is really only the end-result.

  33. Tom says:

    It would be interesting to plot the rise of open plan office design against the global productivity slump. In the below chart, it shows that productivity has been in decline in the US since the 2000s. My hypothesis would be that this is inversely correlated to the rise of open plan office designs. See chart: https://www.brunswickgroup.com/yves-morieux-i6394/

  34. Ed A says:

    Over a twenty year career I have worked in all three situations: open space, cubicles and private offices. Each time I had a private office the employer would eventually transition into cubicles. The private office, in my opinion, was the best hands down for efficiency. There are no distractions or noise problems and with the door shut all conversations are private. The employer preferred the open space and cubicles where employees could be monitored and it was a cost saver. This bias created a situation where the employer embraced the open concept for collaboration and communication. Would you be more efficient sitting at a desk near the airport departure gate with the (open space) or in a private office?

  35. Tan Lovell says:

    With walls removed, you are constantly in the presence of others. You are in their presence even if you are not interacting with them or making eye contact. I have walked through wall-less office areas and each individual I passed through has homed themselves to the screen in-front. They remained unaware that a stranger just walked by them.
    I think making a case that people will interact more by removing office walls is a farce and a ploy to not have to say that construction costs were reduced by removing partitions, walls and doors.
    Another success story for corporate mafia, another step towards economic slavery.

  36. Lector says:

    I was surprised that the article didn’t mention what I thought was the most obvious issue: the removal/blurring of personal territory.

    An office or cubicle is a sheltered area which is explicitly yours. ‘This space is my space, that space is your space. I get to decide what happens in my space, as you do yours’.
    (Or less prosaically, ‘dude, I’m trying to work here. Get out of my cube’.)

    In an open office, the line between what space is yours, and what is somebody else’s gets fuzzy. In my experience, that uncertainty with boundaries makes people uncomfortable, a little on edge. (The hind brain doesn’t care about logic. It wants safety and predictability.)

    That discomfort results in withdrawal and refusal to interact. Both because you’re afraid of hitting a coworker’s boundaries without noticing, and because you have no ‘safe zone’ to retreat to if something goes wrong.

  37. Chuck Bowen says:

    Very interesting study. Over the past three decades I have moved up the corporate ladder, but moved from a private office to a bullpen, with glass walls. Our team is pretty dynamic, but the “noise” in the room can be deafening. Mostly, not work related, people talking on their mobiles, texting, etc. The only way to do work is to tune out everyone and concentrate. The fact is that the tune out and increased concentration take brain-power. Brain-power that cannot be used for “work” because it is maintaining a mental barrier against the environmental noise and distractions.

    Open offices are an attempt to fix a perceived problem (e.g., lack of interaction), with an unsupported solution … remove the barriers! Most management I have worked for would ignore this article and continue to follow the fad!

    Dr. Chuck
    Dr. Charles T. Bowen Jr., DSL

  38. Quote: “… may also require boundaries to constrain their interactions, thereby reducing the potential for overload, distraction, bias, myopia and other symptoms of bounded rationality…”

    That’s a lot of jargon to say that in an open office people talk less because they know what they say is being heard by others. Talk and they lose privacy and become a distraction for others.

    And what the heck are “symptoms of bounded rationality”?

  39. I would like to see the before and after floor plans of these office spaces. Were private offices simply removed with nothing put in their place? A productive and efficient workplace isn’t just desks and meeting rooms. You need the right blend of Space Types in order for an office to be truly efficient in the way they work. If these companies took away places to make a phone call or breakout with colleagues, then absolutely the collaboration will decrease. The “open office” isn’t just about where people sit. The office space should work with your teams and staff. While the ratio of the space types may not always be the same from company to the next, every company needs Phone/Quiet Rooms, small meeting rooms, standard meeting rooms, lounges, areas for respite, maybe a library setting, etc. Without the proper variety of Space Types, your space will work against you and your productivity will decrease.

  40. Jim Meredith says:

    I think that the problem arises when people design for things and data (desks, cubes, sf/person, etc.) rather than for behaviors (reading, problem seeking, shipping, etc.). That is, the problem is not “open office” but shallow thinking.

  41. MJ says:

    I struggle tremendously with the open office that I work in. I have recently been diagnosed by my doctor as HSP – Highly Sensitive Person. This is estimated to be 20% of people – not a disorder, but a variation of “wiring”. I have taken to working at home 80% of the time, thankfully accepted by my workplace. Overstimulation is a real problem for me and makes me literally sick. I think the open-office works for some, and not for others, and it seems that probably, if 20% of the population is HSP, then open-offices don’t work for 20% of people. Being in this 20%, I feel that these issues are issues of a minority group that are widely not accepted and generally looked down upon. Being social in large groups does not equate to being healthy and happy for all, as our society seems to have made people believe. I, for one, even being from a family of 10 children, am never my best self in large groups of people. I need the deeper interaction of one-on-one or small groups to do my best work.

  42. newton says:

    Great concern and really imperative one. looking forward for your book

  43. Anabell says:

    I was surprised that the article didn’t mention what I thought was the most obvious issue: the removal/blurring of personal territory.

  44. Arjen says:

    I was surprised that the article didn’t mention what I thought was the most obvious issue: the removal/blurring of personal territory.

  45. Mithun says:

    Here is an interesting article on Hans Zimmer during composing score for film Interstellar I thought it would make be interesting post on your plog
    https://www.reddit.com/r/todayilearned/comments/8zf48v/til_hans_zimmer_isolated_himself_for_30_days_in/

  46. Carms says:

    A lot of programmers prefer being able to work independently without interruption, and these people easily adapt to interaction via chat, conference call, etc.
    People that prefer open plan really just like being able to talk and come up with reasons to justify a more social office plan.

  47. Carms says:

    People need to have relationships with each other in order to work together. When they are sitting next to each other it’s more natural and happens faster.

    For remote teams, you need lots of communication. Chat. Video. There are plenty of tools now to make this cheap and easy. But also, bring them all together on a regular basis

  48. Eduxpert says:

    it is good to have privacy in offices. removing the spatial boundaries may take the privacy of employees and it may be a reason for the decreased face to face interaction between them

  49. Sasha Alimov says:

    I worked in an open office for six months. With time, everyone gets acquainted and when one person has a question, everyone is drawn into it and begins to come up with a solution. But not necessarily working questions. You get easily distracted, and then hard to get back to work.

  50. Chris Rogers says:

    For an introvert like me, open spaces really distract me a lot but then I know I have to get used to it since it is also a challenge for me to grow my network, and also because it is one of my main reasons why I decided to work in a coworking space.

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