A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 9, 2015

The Open Plan Backlash

You cannot win. Period. That's everyone officially, morally, legally, surreptitiously or only vaguely responsible for office design, layout and organization.

And the reason has nothing to do with your skills, theories, philosophy, survey techniques, data integration protocols or personal upbringing.

It's because there are a lot of different kinds of people in any given office. And few, if any of them, share consistent a work style. This may not be true for securities traders, but for them it's all about the money anyway, so don't even bother asking.

No, for those who want a work environment conducive to accomplishing whatever tasks they have been set, and with the relative freedom to figure out how to achieve their goals - with compensation to match - the answer is that there is no answer. What works for some does not do so for others. And even if, through some bizarre and utterly random confluence of cosmic alignments there were to be agreement for some brief, shining moment, it would just as quickly evaporate under the pressure of rapidly changing circumstances.

So, the solution: despair? ritual self-immolation? Hardly. Open plan works for some people in some situations just as cubicles once may have. Budget is always going to be an issue. So is fashion, as in wishing to appear hip enough to attract the latest wave of potential hires, financiers and new clients.

The Hawthorne experiments in the 1920s demonstrated what is still true: people appreciate being asked their opinion about the workplace. That does not necessarily mean they agree with the solution. And in this economy, no one should be under the illusion that any change will be long lasting, let alone permanent - whatever that means these days. Ultimately, it's about getting the work done and achieving results. JL

Cardiff Garcia whines in the Financial Times:

Companies with the means should consider office design a priority, not a cost-saving opportunity or an architectural vanity project.
I really like my colleagues, but I spend at least half my working hours wishing they would stop talking. Pipe down. Not quite STFU but at least be mindful of making a racket.
The fault isn’t remotely theirs. What are they supposed to do? Never say anything to each other?
No, the problem is our physical proximity in an environment with few barriers, constant noise, phones ringing, sporadic laughter, shrill voices, interruptions and distractions and SOMEONE PLEASE END THE GODDAMN PRINTER.
I had a vague feeling for several years that the popularity of open-plan offices would inspire a backlash. I’ve always hated them, and not because I’m an introvert.
That the productivity gains generated by spontaneous water-cooler chats would outweigh the losses that come with an open-plan environment, one so opposed to sustained concentration, is an idea that always seemed ludicrous.
I have thus watched with relief and smug satisfaction the endless parade of studies and media articles finding that open-plan offices are terrible for employee health, productivity, stress levels and general office-worker contentment.
Can anything be done about this scourge of (admittedly rather privileged) humanity? Probably we can’t have private offices for everyone, which never existed in the first place. Cubicles are better, but only marginally so — and, if they are suffocatingly constructed while offering merely the illusion of privacy, could even be worse. Good design ideas can help. Some are passed along in the links below. Especially promising are office designs that make it easy for employees to move naturally between open and private spaces, as it suits their work.
True, often the difficulty of working in an open-plan office is linked to a more fundamental, specific problem. If a company doesn’t give its employees the autonomy to control their workspaces, for instance by allowing them either to work remotely or to have quiet chats in private, then that company probably sucks to work for anyways.
And yes, a workplace should be social. Daily interaction with friendly colleagues is one of life’s reliable joys. Sometimes those spontaneous discussions really do lead to helpful breakthroughs and creative ideas. But daily interaction during occasional breaks shouldn’t mean constant, forced, inescapable interaction — which actually leads to greater resentment towards one’s coworkers.
These frustrations of open-plan offices seem like such a silly item to complain about. When a company or a boss asks for feedback, we tend to focus on more obvious issues: “I’m underpaid. I deserve a promotion. My talents are being wasted. Mike doesn’t work well with Brenda, and Brenda is always complaining about Glenn, and Glenn is an asshole. I deserve to be rated higher than these idiots.”
Complaining about the inability to concentrate seems comparatively… wimpy. After all, this is one of the #firstworldproblem-iest of #firstworldproblems. It’s a problem for people lucky enough to have decent white-collar work. And a common objection is that people should just deal with the distractions by learning to concentrate despite them — that working in an open-plan office can be an acquired skill, like writing well or speaking in public.
I don’t buy it. The notion goes against too much of the empirical evidence about the mind’s ability to juggle multiple tasks without compromising good performance. And in any case, why toss up yet another obstacle to good work? Are there not enough in a typical office bureaucracy?
So I would really emphasise the conclusion that this matters a lot, possibly more than you think. Just consider all the time you lose to distraction. Hour by hour, or even day by day, it might not seem like such a big deal. But accumulated over a lifetime, the losses add up. They might even be the difference between completing big projects and never starting them. The difference between looking back fondly on proud achievements rather than finishing your career with only a vague understanding of what you did for four decades. Or it could mean foregone time in your personal life, which most people want more of. This all sounds hokey and dramatic, but I believe it.
Obviously the ability to concentrate deeply for long stretches of time won’t matter to every career. And even to those where it is crucial, it isn’t the only variable that counts. But it’s a pretty big one, and companies with the means should consider office design a priority, not a cost-saving opportunity or an architectural vanity project.
But don’t take my word for it. Numerous others have covered the topic in recent years. Here’s a bibliography of media articles, including links to relevant studies, and company surveys that were used to inform the video:
1) Open-plan offices are bad for your health.
Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker:
In a recent study of more than twenty-four hundred employees in Denmark, Jan Pejtersen and his colleagues found that as the number of people working in a single room went up, the number of employees who took sick leave increased apace. Workers in two-person offices took an average of fifty per cent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of sixty-two per cent more.
Rachel Feintzeig, Wall Street Journal:
A recent study published in the journal Ergonomics found that workers who share open spaces with multiple colleagues are more likely to take short-term sick leaves than those who enjoy the privacy of their own office. Researcher and architect Christina Bodin Danielsson and three colleagues at Stockholm University studied 1,852 employees working in seven different types of offices in Sweden. … The study found “a significant association with office type” when it came to the short sick leave spells: workers in small, medium and large open office layouts had “elevated risks” as compared to those who had private offices.
2) Open-plan offices are bad for your productivity
Anna-Codrea Rado, Quartz:
In a literature review of studies on open-plan offices, researchers from Virginia State University and North Carolina State University found evidence to suggest that they’re linked to lower productivity. Scanning work from the Journal of Human Ecology, Academy of Management Journal and Administrative Science Quarterly, Tonya Smith-Jackson and Katherine Klein identified reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy as factors negatively affecting productivity in open-plan environments. Similar to Mak and Lui findings, the resounding message in the research is that overhearing conversations in the office is very intrusive and distracting for workers.
Harry Bradford, The Huffington Post:
Offices that lump employees together in large spaces, called open-plan offices, have detrimental effects on workplace productivity despite previous claims that such configurations promote communication and boost morale, a new study by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear of the University of Sydney Faculty of Architecture has found. … “Our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work environmental satisfaction,” the researchers wrote. “The open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.”
3) Conversations in open-plan offices are paranoid and superficial:
Ethan Bernstein, Harvard Business Review:
For all that transparency does to drive out wasteful practices and promote collaboration and shared learning, too much of it can trigger distortions of fact and counterproductive inhibitions. Unrehearsed, experimental behaviors sometimes cease altogether. Wide-open workspaces and copious real-time data on how individuals spend their time can leave employees feeling exposed and vulnerable. Being observed changes their conduct. They start going to great lengths to keep what they’re doing under wraps, even if they have nothing bad to hide. If executives pick up on signs of covert activity, they instinctively start to monitor employee behavior even more intensely. And that just aggravates the problem.
Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks, Harvard Business Review:
More than a dozen studies have examined the behavioral effects of such redesigns. There’s some evidence that removing physical barriers and bringing people closer to one another does promote casual interactions. But there’s a roughly equal amount of evidence that because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them. Some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.
4) Workers don’t like open-plan offices.
People work less well when they move from a personal office to an open-plan layout, according to a longitudinal study carried out by Calgary University. Writing in the Journal of Environment and Behavior, Aoife Brennan, Jasdeep Chugh and Theresa Kline found that such workers reported more stress, less satisfaction with their environment and less productivity. Brennan et al went back to survey the participants six months after the move and found not only that they were still unhappy with their new office, but that their team relations had broken down even further.
5) Managers want space per worker to continue shrinking ever more.
Survey by CoreNet Global:
The average per worker in 2017 will be 151 square feet per worker, compared to 176 square feet today, and 225 square feet in 2010. ‘The main reason for the declines,’ said Richard Kadzis, CoreNet Global’s Vice President of Strategic Communications, ‘is the huge increase in collaborative and team oriented space inside a growing number of companies that are stressing “smaller but smarter” workplaces against the backdrop of continuing economic uncertainty and cost containment.’
6) Open-plan offices make people dumber, and multi-taskers aren’t exempt.
But the most problematic aspect of the open office may be physical rather than psychological: simple noise. In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. The psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help: even that, Perham found, impairs our mental acuity. Exposure to noise in an office may also take a toll on the health of employees. In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response. …
In a 2005 study, the psychologists Alena Maher and Courtney von Hippel found that the better you are at screening out distractions, the more effectively you work in an open office. Unfortunately, it seems that the more frantically you multitask, the worse you become at blocking out distractions. Moreover, according to the Stanford University cognitive neuroscientist Anthony Wagner, heavy multitaskers are not only “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli” but also worse at switching between unrelated tasks. In other words, if habitual multitaskers are interrupted by a colleague, it takes them longer to settle back into what they were doing. Regardless of age, when we’re exposed to too many inputs at once—a computer screen, music, a colleague’s conversation, the ping of an instant message—our senses become overloaded, and it requires more work to achieve a given result.
7) In other words, open-plan offices, at least as they are now designed, absolutely suck.
Susan Cain, Quiet (chapter 3):
A mountain of recent data on open-plan offices from many different industries corroborates the results of the [Coding War Games, an experiment designed by Tom DeMarco and Timoth Lister that suggested the powerful effects of privacy on performance]. Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure.
Open-plan workers are more likely to suffer from high blood pressure and elevated stress levels and to get the flu; they argue more with their colleagues; they worry about coworkers eavesdropping on their phone calls and spying on their computer screens. They have fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues. They’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates; releases cortisol, the body’s fight-or-flight “stress” hormone; and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive, and slow to help others.
(I embedded links to some of the relevant studies, as referenced in the back of Cain’s book, where I could find them.)


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