The open office

talking horse The “open office environment” is everywhere these days.

No private space, no closed doors, everyone working side by side in a collaborative utopia. Coworkers can see/hear what each other is doing and spontaneously contribute insights. New ideas, models, and projects are hatched on the spot. It’s amazing how this approach has caught fire. (70% of offices use it now!)

It’s amazing because it’s a dopey idea.

Wait! I know what you’re thinking: you can’t overlook the benefits of people constantly peering over your shoulder, loudly interrupting your work, and offering unsolicited judgments. Besides, what are stairwells good for, if not for holding private discussions?

As it turns out, evidence abounds that productivity suffers when people can’t find private space. A New Yorker article convincingly makes the case here that open office layouts destroy job performance. The predictable results are: reduced creativity, concentration, sense of control, motivation, and job satisfaction; damage to interpersonal relationships; and increased stress and sick time from noise, commotion, and interruption. (Other than that, it’s a nifty idea.) Articles in Fast Company here and The Huffington Post here confirm this.

Yes, "business incubators" adopt this open office layout, but that’s because they’re doing their best to house many small startups in a limited space for a limited time. Yes, millennial workers are more comfortable (or less irritated) using it, but that’s because they’re more familiar with multitasking—and the diminished performance that goes with it. Yes, senior management loves it, but that’s because they save a fortune in office space and can keep a watchful eye on workers they want to micromanage.

Ok, most open office layouts do have a few rooms with actual doors—but how often are they available and how often do you have to fight with coworkers to use them?

Susan Cain in her best seller, Quiet—which I blogged about here and here—tells us that introverts (who make up about half the workforce, even more in hi-tech) need “alone time” to think, process information, recharge their batteries, and create. But everyone—not just introverts—suffers if that's not available. (In a footnote on page 295 of her book, Cain references eight studies that document the ill effects of open office plans.) She quotes one study of top computer programmers which determined that the best performers worked for businesses that gave workers "the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

But there are hopeful signs for the future, says Cain:

    Some companies are starting to understand the value of silence and solitude, and are creating "flexible" open plans that offer a mix of solo workspaces, quiet zones, casual meeting areas, cafés, reading rooms, computer hubs, and even "streets" where people can chat casually with each other without interrupting others’ workflow.

Living and rehearsing in tight quarters with rock & roll bands in my early years gave me an appreciation of what's required for people to work creatively together. Band members need private time—to write songs, to practice their instruments, even to listen to music by themselves. Some require that more than others, but everybody needs some of it. Of course band members also need to come together in a shared space to arrange and rehearse songs. It’s not an either-or.

Likewise in mainstream business. Associates should have private space, with their own cubicles or offices. And there should also be occasions for them to work together. I’ve even invented a new term for this: “Meetings.”

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  1. Frustrating deluxe when I did web dev for a high tech startup where engineers got offices they were never in because they were always working in the team areas, and I sat writing code in an open area where everyone walking by interrupted me to ask things the help desk guy beside me could answer.

    I have TWO home offices now. One upstairs in an open area, one downstairs with a door. And a 400W sound system.

    1. I have an open office environment in my home too. But my teammates (7 house plants) know enough to not interrupt me.

  2. Brilliant. Reminds me of the Aerosmith song: No More, No More...

    Blood stains the ivorys
    Of my Daddy's baby grand
    I ain't seen no daylight
    Since we started this band
    No More, No More

  3. Hey John!!
    Not more I can add here, as I find the private office always worked for me. Anything else is a 'meeting'. Open office would drive me crazy.....

  4. You can't have innovation acellerators, business incubators, etc unless they're shared space facilities. It won't work economically plus the whole point is to foster idea sharing between team members as well as between startup companies themselves.

    1. Agreed. As mentioned above, those are designed for a limited time frame until the start-up can fly on its own. Later the company can move into its own office and set up something more flexible—perhaps a hybrid model, as Susan Cain describes, which offers a mix of private and shared spaces. There are lots of ways to go.

      But for most workplace denizens, an open office environment that eliminates private space is going to be a problem if continued indefinitely, as the research indicates.

  5. I think what we're seeing here is a reiteration of what is so timeless, simple and yet so often forgotten: One size does not fit all.

    BTW, how did you get the houseplants to stop interrupting you? Mine are the noisiest and most distracting bunch imaginable, but they're Sansevieria trifasciata so maybe that's to be expected.

    1. Mark, I also have one of those Sansevieria trifasciata (also known as "Mother-in-Law's Tongue"). But if they get too obnoxious I just wear headphones.

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