Open offices are widely lamented by developers and others who like their own space, but large companies continue to hold such layouts up as bastions of good taste and productivity. For example, Apple’s infamous ‘spaceship’ headquarters in Cupertino features an open-office design. Why are we still doing this to ourselves?
Perhaps the most glaring example of an open floor plan is Facebook’s new headquarters, reportedly the largest such design in the world. It’s 10 acres of desks under a shared roof, with even CEO Mark Zuckerberg working elbow-to-elbow with everyone else. It’s built to house over 2,800 engineers.
Apple’s new campus was well thought-out, down to the door-handles that supposedly took over a year to design. The designers wanted the doorways to lack thresholds, because (according to a Reuters report) “if engineers had to adjust their gait while entering the building, they risked distraction from their work, according to a former construction manager.”
But as The Wall Street Journal points out, some Apple employees are already taking issue with the design: “Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting.” While not quite a Facebook-esque version of open workspace, the spaceship nonetheless seems to prioritize design over function.
A common refrain in defense of open floor pans is cost, but neither Apple or Facebook can use that one (Apple’s new campus is rumored to have cost the company north of $5 billion). Google’s plan is so open that literally everything inside is modular; the campus becomes one with the community in Mountain View as well as the green-space around it.
Are We Too Worried About the Open Office?
Two-thirds of the 42,764 respondents to a University of Sydney study on workplace satisfaction say they report to an open office environment. “In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,” the researchers concluded. “Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy and over 20% of all office occupants, regardless of office layout, registered dissatisfaction with the thermal conditions.”
Open office plans are so lamented that we penned an article in 2015 on how to survive them. The advice: You should minimize distractions as best you can – something more easily attainable with a proper office to retreat to.
This is probably a good time to point out Dice’s various U.S. offices have open floor plans with private meeting rooms. In an open space, respect matters, as does keeping meeting rooms available. Ducking into a room to take a call is fine, but squatting to finish some work isn’t. (We’re lucky to have a lot of respectful people at Dice.)
Microsoft strikes a balance between open and traditional offices. At its “Developer Division” in Redmond, the company has ‘focus rooms’ where a developer can tuck into a codebase without worrying about who’s seeing their screen. The rooms are closed off from the open area, which also houses dedicated conference rooms.
A study dubbed ‘The Transparency Paradox’ used field experiments to examine employee productivity in open office environments, noting “empirical evidence from the field shows that even a modest increase in group-level privacy sustainably and significantly improves line performance, while qualitative evidence suggests that privacy is important in supporting productive deviance, localized experimentation, distraction avoidance, and continuous improvement.” In other words, a bit of privacy equals productivity and creativity.
Based on an examination of assembly line manufacturing, the study showed that, when managers are separated from workers, productivity increased 10-15 percent. One reason is that company policy is often not aligned with productivity; employees report that when management watches them work, they’re more inclined to follow nuanced rules, many of which have no direct correlation to productivity.
Take a step back and your takeaway might be that employees – no matter where they work, or what they do – typically just want to do a good job and be productive. To that, it’s reasonable to consider open offices a bad thing. Save for collaborative efforts and meetings, open offices have proven to undermine morale and productivity, something every company claims to be sensitive to. Corporate action and dictum don’t align when it comes to open offices, so we have to wonder when they’ll turn the corner and stop dumping billions of dollars into spaces that many employees don’t want to be in.
Earlier today, I got a story pitch on the "office of the future" that featured the following bullet points:
- Remote Work Will be the New Norm: According to recent Fuze research, 83 percent of workers don't think they need to be in an office to be productive, and 38 percent said they would enjoy their job more if they were allowed to work remotely.
- Physical Space Will Shrink: We'll see more companies shift to a more collaborative office space model with workspaces that bring together teams, spark conversation, and create the best ideas.
- Traditional Desks Will Disappear: The so-called cubicle farm will become a distant memory and people will start embracing an environment that suits their needs -- whether it be a table at a coffee shop, a standing desk, or collaboration space.
- "Office Hours" Will Become Obsolete: The workday isn't 9 to 5 anymore, it's 24/7. In fact, a recent Fidelity survey found that Millennials will take a pay cut for a more flexible work environment.
The list (which is very much "conventional wisdom") illustrates the crazy-making way that companies think about open-plan offices. Can you see the disconnect? Bullets 1 and 4 are saying that people don't want to work in an office, while bullets 2 and 3 are defining the very office environment where people don't want to work.
And isn't that the sad truth? Most people would rather work at home and or tolerate angry stares from the other patrons in a coffee shop (should one need to make a call) than try to get something done in an open-plan office.
In previous posts, I've provided links to numerous studies showing that open-plan offices are both a productivity disaster and a false economy. (The productivity drain more than offsets the savings in square footage.) I've even posted some videos showing how wretched (and in some cases ridiculous) these environments truly are.
Well, just in case you weren't yet convinced, here's some new evidence from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings--by far the most comprehensive research on this issue. The results, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, came to the following conclusion:
"Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced 'ease of interaction' were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration."
Don't let the jargon confuse you. The term "proxemics issues" refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they're forced into close proximity with other people. To be perfectly clear, here's what the paragraph says: "Open-plan offices aren't worth it."
BTW, it isn't just the noise and the interruptions that cause people to hate open-plan offices. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article:
"All of this social engineering has created endless distractions that draw employees' eyes away from their own screens. Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee's field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity."
Unlike noise pollution, which can be remedied with a pair of headsets, there's no way to block out the visual pollution, short of throwing a towel over your head and screen like a toddler's play tent.
So, getting back to the story pitch and the conventional wisdom it represents: Yes, indeed, people want to work at home, and yes, indeed, they're willing to take a cut in pay to get away from the open-plan office that you've offered them.
What's weird is that the people who design office spaces and the executives who hire them don't see the connection. They seem unable to understand that forcing open-plan offices down everyone's throat is not only ruining productivity but it's actively driving good employees to avoid to coming into the office.
So let me make it simple.
Dear Executive: Do you want your employees to come into the office and work long hours while they're there? THEN GIVE THEM PRIVATE OFFICES. At the very least, give them high-walled cubicles that provide a modicum of privacy.
For crying out loud, is this really that difficult a concept to understand?