why science says that open offices suck
Businesses are often paradoxical entities. They generally claim to be driven by data and analysis, but are frequently piloted by anecdotes mistaken for data, with a hefty dose of self-serving confirmation bias. When there was so much buzz about the “innovation economy” back in the early 2000s, many executives claimed that co-workers chatting with each other during the day kept coming up with amazing ideas and insights. Meanwhile, companies in search of new office space found that open layouts mimicking a traditional bullpen just so happened to be a lot cheaper than more closed off ones, so they put two and two together and made open offices the hot new thing to save cash and sound like they were being creative and ambitious. Sadly, as those who ever spent any time working in one tell you, this concept really, really sucks in practice. They’re too loud, bright, and distracting. The total lack of privacy quickly feels downright agoraphobic. You won’t be spending your time “collaborating innovative synergies,” you’ll be fighting onslaughts of noise and interruptions with earbuds, or hiding in empty meeting rooms for as long as you can manage just to get some work done.
After years of research and surveys, it turns out that all those paeans to the open, collaborative office were wrong and this setup violates every possible environment we need to be productive. Let’s start with the biggest problem with the entire concept around which these offices are built: multitasking. Almost every job nowadays lists “ability to multitask” as one of its primary bullet points. But multitasking is a myth. It simply doesn’t exist. We’re just switching from task to task relatively quickly and it looks like we’re doing a lot of work, especially to the legion of bosses who confuse time in a chair at work and quantity of paperwork with quality and productivity. And while all these bosses love this illusion of work, we’re actually slower and get far less done. This is part of the reason why productivity is up but we’re spending a lot of time at the office and getting seemingly nothing fully done. We more or less set ourselves up for failure in our very job definitions.
We also don’t focus well when we’re not comfortable and are bombarded by distractions on a constant basis. This is especially true for those of us whose job involves code. Music blasting in our ears to shut out the rest of an open office isn’t so much a coping mechanism for us as much as a requirement. It stands to reason that anyone whose job requires focus on creating, editing, or research is going to need a quiet space and will respond to the incessant bothering enabled by the open layout with barely concealed homicidal rage and gnashing of teeth. People tend to like their privacy as well and having to constantly look over their shoulders for prying eyes, or oblivious co-workers invading their personal space, is incredibly stressful and draining for over 50 hours per week, every week, for years on end. It’s little wonder that hearing praise for an open office is rarer than seeing a cow in a tutu. Its victims are exhausted and know they’re not functioning at their full capacity.
But there’s one more insidious things open offices do. They make us sicker, which seems pretty obvious since every cough, sneeze, and sniffle has pretty much no barrier on its way to infect others. It’s such a well known problem that manufacturers of office furniture designing for open offices are working on antiseptic surfaces to keep contagious crud at bay. Those surfaces do not come cheap though, so most offices watching their budgets will be full of all sorts of breeding grounds for viruses and bacteria, and in American culture, where going to work sick is frighteningly often praised, during winter time in cold climates, at least one of your co-workers in an open office is pretty much guaranteed to be a bipedal biohazard. Most have us have done it too, spreading disease as we traversed the space, trying to hack up a lung for at least some congestion relief, and oozing virions across the break room in the process of brewing coffee to stay awake because staying home sick, like any doctor would recommend, means we’re not “team players.” Or “get paid.”
So to review, open offices are based on the myths that we can multitask and collaboration happens on the spot instead of in a constructive environment, with a goal in mind, stresses us out, breaks our focus, lowers our functional productivity, and makes us more prone to disease. Its only redeeming point is price, but considering that people working in them are unhappy and can’t get nearly as much done as they know they’re able to, all the cost savings of an open office plan may well be offset by productivity loss. By contrast, just a little privacy, peace, and quiet, works wonders because a closed office can play to how an office job actually should work. So while it may be expensive to set up, your employees will get more done, will need less time off to get over their seasonal colds and flus, and be happier at work, meaning better and more ideas that can boost revenues and the bottom line. So let’s listen to the science and leave open offices where they belong: history.