A few months back in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova reported that open offices don’t actually do what they were designed to do, which is to facilitate communication and idea flow. She said:
In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices made employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.
Rats in a Noisy Maze
As an introvert, my experiences with open offices have been difficult. Even a cubicle offers a certain level of privacy. You feel like you have some measure of control over your environment. If you need to make a personal phone call, you can do so without worrying about being overheard. If you need silence to focus on an intensive task, you can get it. In an open office, you are at the total mercy of your co-workers’ presence.
I recall being constantly distracted, and every time I’d get interrupted, I’d have to exert enormous effort to gain back my focus. Sometimes my mind was so busy I couldn’t even remember what I was supposed to be doing. My productivity was at an all-time low: a task that took me an hour or two at home took me a full work day in my open office.
As for communication, I found that when I could get away from my colleagues for two seconds, my interactions with them were more concise and purposeful. Once out of the chaos of the open office environment, I learned how not to waste my co-workers’ time.
The Body Needs Alone Time
I was sick more often when I worked at my open office job, and thanks to Konnikova’s article, I understand why. She tells of a recent study in Denmark, which found that employees in two-person offices took an average of 50 percent more sick leave than those in single offices, while those who worked in fully open offices were out an average of 62 percent more. Apparently the stress of the open-office environment is hard on the body, causing a high-alert state similar to fight-or-flight.
Supposedly Millennials like open offices better because they create a more social and fun work environment and a greater sense of camaraderie with co-workers. However, yet another study by Rasila and Rothe from 2012 showed that young employees found certain types of noises, such as conversations and laughter, just as distracting as their older counterparts did. And Millennials performed less effectively even as they multi-tasked with aplomb.
There Must Be a Better Way
If you want to foster solidarity and engagement, there are better ways to do it than with an open office. How about weekly team building exercises, meet-and-greets with senior managers, or Lunch-and-Learns instead? If you want people to talk to one another, why not outlaw texting, instant messaging, or emailing people in the building, forcing employees to walk over to one another’s cubicles or offices? If you want them to innovate, organize themed brainstorms or give them a percentage of work time to pursue a passion project that takes the organization to the next level.
Open offices were an extreme solution to begin with, and the data is in, folks: they don’t work. So cut your losses and close your offices before your embattled employees find a company that will.
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