The Promise  --  and Curse  --  of Open Offices

The metaphor of breaking down walls between workers may be more than a metaphor. Maybe.


Milllennials working in GREY's Base Camp --- source: GREY New York


The idea of open offices --- generally called open plan office space or bürolandschaft (literally, office landscape) --- has been around for a long time. Indeed, in the early 1900s many businesses had long rows of desks where clerks, secretaries, or engineers performed their tasks out in the open, under the watchful eyes of their managers. But there was a steady shift toward more privacy in offices, leading to the 1950s model of traditional single occupant offices for many or most knowledge workers. However, in the 1970s we reached peak office, and cubicles colonized the business world, allowing for much denser configurations of space. And now, in the 21st century, in the quest for even greater density --- and even lower costs --- the open plan office is back, but the cubicles are gone.

What's old is new again.

The Promise

The metaphor of breaking down walls between workers may be more than a metaphor. Maybe.

A meta-analysis of research in this field by Matthew C. Davis, Desmond J. Leach, and Chris W. Clegg, summarized some of the work of researchers on the plus side of open plan offices (references omitted):

It has been suggested that offices that facilitate greater communication and interaction (e.g., those that place individuals close to one another and remove physical barriers to communication, as open-plan offices frequently do) allow individuals to share task-relevant information, promote feedback, and create friendship opportunities, leading in turn to increased inter-personal relations, reduced conflict, increased job satisfaction and motivation. Indeed, studies have found that more open workspace generates greater group sociability and an increase in interaction has been typically observed. Furthermore, open-plan configurations have been found to affect the pattern of interaction, with less time spent in formal meetings and an increase in informal communication (e.g., more conversations held around desks) observed following its introduction.

It is this always-on-the-sunny-side thinking that serves as cover for management's efforts to cut the overhead associated with 'surplus space', especially in major metropolitan centers where the costs of prime office space have been climbing quickly.

The case has been made that open plan offices support more open and collaborative work styles, and McElroy and Murrow reported in 2010 (in *Employee reactions to office redesign *in Human Relations), that adopting an open plan office layout yielded positive changes in employee perceptions of organizational culture, with employees saying their culture was more innovative, less formal, and fostering greater collaboration than the study's control group, which had not moved to an open plan.

The quest for increased serendipity --- or 'coincidensity' as my old friend Matt Biddulph called it --- is a motivation in many high tech companies, who bring in office planners and architects with the expressed goal of amplifying innovation through careful design of the workplace.

The reality for the majority of companies, however, who simply tear down all the partitions and sublet 30% of the office space, is far from rosy.

The Curse

Noise --- which leads to distraction --- is the biggest headache of open offices, and it leads to lower performance. Raj Udeshi, an entrepreneur in New York City, said 'headphones are the new wall' in a NY Times article about open office noise. Remedies like 'pink noise' --- which masks low-frequency background sound --- can decrease the detrimental effects of sound pollution in open plan offices, but other distractions --- like interruptions --- can't be so easily countered.


Noise --- which leads to distraction --- is the biggest headache of open offices, and it leads to lower performance.


Across the board, general cognitive overload, reduced levels of concentration, and lower levels of motivation are 'consistently associated with high density, open-plan offices with relatively few physical screens between staff', again according to the research of Davis, Leach, and Clegg.

And open plan offices are bad for occupants' health. Aside from raising stress, they are germ vectors. Recent research in Denmark shows a correlation with sickness: the larger the open space is in an office, the more people will take sick leave. Compared to traditional single occupant offices, those in open offices with more than 6 occupants had more than double --- 62% --- the normal days of sick leave.

How prevalent are open offices, today? In recent research by Dell, reported in The Global Evolving Workforce, we learn the following:

  • 25% of offices are designed with little or no barriers between employees: fully open

  • 28% are a mix of traditional and open

  • So just a hair more than half (53%) are old school cubicles+shared spaces+offices layout

  • Two-thirds of the media/entertainment segment have either an open or mixed layout

  • Germany is the most conservative country, with 53% of employees housed in the traditional closed office layout.

In that Dell study, we also learn that half of workers are frequently interrupted at their desks, and that half is twice as likely to say they always wear headphones at their desks.

While millennials are more open to open plan offices than their boomer colleagues --- believing that they lead to more camaraderie --- they aren't immune to the negatives, either. However, their behavior in open plan offices may be amplifying the negatives for all.

Grey, a well-known New York advertising agency, has come up with a way to decrease the annoyances of open plan offices: they moved all the millennials into their own space, away from older colleagues and bosses. All 40 of their assistant account executives --- AAEs, aka millennial newbies --- are housed in an area called Base Camp.

As reported in Businessweek, the ghettoization seems to be working:

Three AAEs I spoke with said their physical distance from supervisors offers time to consider how to best approach the higher-ups. "Since I'm not sitting in front of my supervisor, I'm not able to just turn around and say, 'Hey, this is what I think,' " says Sean McNamara. "It makes you think: When does this call for me to go over and talk about things, and when will an e-mail suffice?" AAEs also receive guidance from a senior manager and attend "Wisdom of the Week" workshops, in which senior Grey executives offer career advice.

Other observers take a slightly different angle on this approach, referring back to what McNamara said:

Richard Whitman, Grey New York Sticks Annoying Millennials In Their Own Private Playpen

A while back, the [Grey] agency moved all its assistant account executives into one area of the office, effectively segregating them from their managers. Why? So they'll grow up and think before they speak. And that comes right from the mouth of a Millennial!

[...]

Apparently, Millennials must be physically separated from their bosses to rescue management from an incessant stream of mindless, ill-thought-through banter.

A bit harsh, perhaps, to say the millennials need to sit at the kid's table. But I expect we will see more of this variant of the open plan office, where those that thrive --- or think they do --- in high density, high interruption environments, like millennials, will choose that end of the building, while those for whom open offices are at best a necessary evil (and at worst, hell on earth) will reside in a quiet-as-is-humanly-possible zone. And everybody will be using headphones as a magic talisman to fend off the endless barrage of noise and interruptions that define the modern workplace.


Everybody will be using headphones as a magic talisman to fend off the endless barrage of noise and interruptions that define the modern workplace.