The movement against open offices continues.
The headline on a TechCrunch acrticle published this past month says it all: “Yes, open office plans are the worst.”
Reporter Sarah Wells did a deep dive into some of the reasons why open offices present more problems than solutions, mentioning a recent Harvard University study that found open offices actually reduced productivity and face-to-face interaction.
The article spurred a lively conversation on Reddit, where there were more than 100 comments.
In this post, we’re going to review the article and the comments from the subsequent Reddit post.
Open Offices Result in Closed-Off Employees
The most striking point in Wells’ article came from the Harvard study, which noted that open offices resulted in more emails and less face-to-face interaction.
“Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction,“ the study notes. “In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM.”
With this data in hand, Wells went on to note that increased email interaction and decreased face-to-face resulted in a measurable decline in productivity.
“While the concept behind open office spaces is to drive informal interaction and collaboration among employees, the study found that for both groups of employees monitored (52 for one company and 100 for the other company) face-to-face interactions dropped, the number of emails sent increased between 20 and 50 percent and company executives reported a qualitative drop in productivity,” Wells wrote.
She went on to point out some of the conclusions from the study, conclusions we’ve known for a long time. Primarily, that humans tend to want privacy when they’re faced with an open spatial environment that doesn’t provide them any anonymity.
Our brains are wired to perform at the peak level when they sense that there’s a certain level of spatial and auditory privacy. While there may be an anomaly or two, science notes that we’re hard-wired to excel in creativity and productivity when we have our own space.
Reddit Responds: The People Agree
As we mentioned earlier, more than 100 people responded to the TechCrunch link posted in Reddit’s Business sub (business-focused message board).
The top comment in the thread was from a user named “themick”, who wrote the following:
“I went from a job with an open office to a job with tall 6ft cubes… The cubes are the greatest thing ever. I have a little bit of peace and I feel like I get more done during the day.”
Another user named ”lemon_tea” pointed out another important aspect of a cubicle-based office – that you can’t really have a private conversation amid a sea of bean bags, desks and anchorless coworkers:
“The other terror is having a phone conversation with someone who sits in an open office or being on a conference bridge. Good luck picking their voice out of the background noise they continuously inject on the line. And for some reason they never mute their line to take care of the noise.”
“AiresWolf3” added another insight we’ve talked about in the past: cost efficiency. There may be instances in which a company chooses an open-office design simply because it costs less.
“Does anyone really believe that open office plans are about “driving informal interactions and collaboration”? I thought that was just a polite fiction given by management to justify cost-cutting,” the AiresWolf3 wrote. “Sort of like how ‘streamlining’ and ‘focusing on our core business’ is a polite way of saying they’re laying off entire departments.”
The user also noted that open offices aren’t always a good fit for introverts, especially in publishing jobs where editors need a quiet, focused space for their work.
“I worked for a publishing company with an open office plan, which was just cruel. Editors are some of the most introverted people on the planet and we all went to great lengths to pretend that we were not aware of one another,” the user said. “We would send IMs to people who sat two feet away.”
In the end, he or she said cubicle life was better for his or her job than an open office.
“I now work in an office with cubicles,” AriesWolf3 wrote. “I never thought I would have such warm and fuzzy feelings toward cubicles, but that’s adult life for you.”