Promoters of open office plans believe that by taking down walls and cubicles, employees will be more productive and create better work. Open offices allow for more collaboration. Open offices invite people talk face-to-face more, so they are more likely to have discussions. Open offices give people a sense of freedom.
That’s what they believe, anyway. Or that’s what they say to justify their choice to move to an open office plan.
In reality, people who work in open-plan spaces are interrupted more frequently than those in offices with doors or in cubicles (sometimes called cellular offices) (Al Horr et al., 2016). Employees in open offices aren’t just interrupted more often by their fellow co-workers; they also interrupt themselves more when in an open office environment (Dabbish et al., 2011).
Why Do We Still Have Open Offices?
For the most part, people don’t like working in open offices. Employees much prefer the privacy and reduced number of interruptions that come with cubicles and offices with doors. Sure, you might find the odd team here or there whose work specifically does benefit from having no walls. But for the most part, it doesn’t work.
Popular belief about open office plans state that in addition to promoting collaboration, they also exemplify an “open” corporate culture. Open offices look contemporary, mimicking the open floor plan that’s become popular in home design. Why have separate rooms for a kitchen, living room, and dining room when you can have one big open space? Such openness!
The bottom line is that open offices are better for the bottom line. They are much less expensive to build and maintain than cubicles or other kinds of cellular offices. The lack of walls and dividers makes it easy and virtually free to readjust the space as staffing rises and falls. You can also fit many more people in the same space when you omit walls (Planet Money, 2016).
Another reason open offices persist may be because big-name companies, such as Facebook and Google, still have them and show off pictures of their spaces. Their spaces look attractive, often because they are designed and decorated by professionals. And the companies are successful. So others imitate them.
I personally have a hard time buying that argument, however. The fact that it’s so much cheaper to have an open plan is a much better business reason. Pointing to the success of big-name companies and saying, “If only we looked more like them, we’d be just as successful!” sounds like post-hoc justification than serious business reasoning.
Backlash against open offices has been gaining momentum, but unfortunately, many of the solutions aren’t much better. Consider, for instance, work pods. You can see some examples of work pods by Steelcase, a company that makes designs and them. Some work pods look a lot like the business class seats on long-haul flights. Am I the only person who is turned off by the idea of being in a workstation designed to make me feel like I’m on an airplane? Why not pipe in 75-decibel white noise while we’re at it and offer miniature bottles of red wine to take the edge off?
Work pods are meant to be used by workers who need some temporary solitude. And they only give the illusion of privacy, not the real thing. You certainly couldn’t hold a private phone call while in a work pod. They also don’t give people a permanent space that is their own.
A Sense of Ownership
When I work, I want a space that’s mine, no matter how small. I want a place to leave my mug, a sweater, and maybe a few houseplants. I want to adjust my chair, desk, and computer monitor to the exact settings that are best for my body. I want my co-workers to know where I sit so they can find me when they need to talk in person. If you want me to feel like I’m a part of the organization, then I need to have a sense of belonging and ownership. A personalized desk, cubicle, or office room provides that.
You don’t get any of those outcomes with work pods or even a hot-desk or mobile workspace setup.
Al Horr, Y., Arif, M., Kaushik, A., Mazroei, A., Katafygiotou, M., & Elsarrag, E. (2016). Occupant Productivity and Office Indoor Environment Quality: A Review of the Literature. Building and Environment(105) 369-389.
Dabbish, L., Mark, G., & Gonzalez, V.M. (2001). Why Do I Keep Interrupting Myself?: Environment, Habit, and Self-Interruption. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: 3,127-3,130.
Planet Money podcast (2016). Episode 704: Open Office. http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2016/06/03/480625378/episode-704-open-office.
Lead image by K2 Space, CC.