Want to Reduce Productivity? Go to an Open Office Environment

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Count me in as one of those who believes the “open” office environment makes it a lot harder to get any real work done.

I know that lots of people like to trumpet the benefits of a wall-less, collaborative workspace, and I’ve worked in a number of them, but all I  found is that they’re noisy, distracting, and impossible to easily have a private phone call in.

The New York Times finally dug into this issue last week, and the story cut to the heart of the problem with an open workspace:

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem.”

A loss of privacy

As the story notes, the rationale for the open office environment was threefold: saving space, saving money, and most importantly, to foster more communication among workers so that they would (hopefully) collaborate and innovate a lot more.

However, there was an unintended consequence to this plan, as the Times notes: “It turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor.”

Yes, that’s a feeling I can identify with.

My first encounter with the open office came at a dotcom in San Francisco during the 1999-2000 Internet boom. We had open office with a lot of cubes, but not everyone even had that. The notion was that this was very egalitarian, open, and led to more collaboration, and it did, but there was also a cost component to the decision to go this way as well.

Our first office was in an old warehouse and former manufacturing plant of some sort, and given our early-stage business development, building out a proper office with lots of private spaces for individuals was cost-prohibitive. Plus, we were hiring and growing pretty rapidly, so it didn’t make sense to build out something that would need to constantly be changed as new employees came on board.

The need to make a private phone call

Yes, the open office worked in that situation — for the most part — but there was still the problem of having to scramble every time you were trying to cut a deal and needed a place to make a private phone call.

Flash forward about five years and I was working in another office well out of the dotcom space where, for some odd reason, private offices were banned except for the very highest executives. It didn’t matter if your job frequently depended on you cutting deals and making phone calls that really needed to be done in private — you got a cube just like everyone else.

Besides the fact that this was just plain arbitrary and dumb, it led to situations where people forgot they were in an open office and tried to make phone calls that were best done privately. Sometimes, this was just flat out embarassing.

There also weren’t enough conference rooms or spaces where one could use for that private phone call, and it led to situations where you had someone call you that you then had to transfer from your cube to a private office. Guess how many calls got lost in that never-ending shuffle?

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Worst of all, one guy for some reason got a private office despite the fact that he didn’t fit the corporate profile for one. Making matter worse, he decided that his office walls were too thin and that he simply couldn’t have a private phone call in there.

So, he ended up (frequently) hogging one of the few joint conference rooms, to the chagrin of everyone else working around him who didn’t have a closed-door office like he did and had to fight with him to get access to the joint-use space. The only real collaboration that went on there was among the people wanting to throttle him.

“Fewer meaningful conversations”

The New York Times story makes a similar point:

Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices. “Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy. …

You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations,” said Jonathan McClelland, an energy consultant … “You end up getting interrupted a lot by people’s random thoughts.”

Yes, I appreciate the collaborative aspects of open offices, but the one size-fits-all approach like the one my former employer came up with fails to recognize a big fault with the open office philosophy: not everyone has the same job, the same needs, or even works the same.

Productivity may take a hit

When you plug a person who really needs a closed-door office into an open environment, do you know what you get? A person who is a lot less productive because they have been dropped into a space not particularly conductive to operating efficiently.

Yes, open offices can be great, but in my experience, they can also reduce productivity and make for noisy workspaces where everyone is hungering for a little privacy now and then.

Add in a host of HR issues that flow out of trying to manage this kind of office space, and what you get is trendy workplace design that needs to be tempered by a little workplace reality.

Open offices? You can have them as far as I’m concerned. They’re just a lot more trouble than they’re worth.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


4 Comments on “Want to Reduce Productivity? Go to an Open Office Environment

  1. I don’t think there’s a “right” answer here. I think the needs or workers are vast – we are introverts and extroverts and varying degrees of such!  I think what office spaces really needs – and what HR really needs – is more trust in their workers, no matter what the environment to get their work done, wherever that needs to happen for them. 

    We have an open office space and, believe it or not, as an introvert I LOVE IT. It forces me out of my comfort zone – to share and interact in ways I naturally wouldn’t. BUT we also have a flexible workplace where I can be in and out of the office as I choose. No 9-5. I work from home or a coffee shop when I need to. I’m in the office when I want to be. 

    I know, I got it good.

    So glad we’re talking about this issue. It’s an important one for sure. Nice write up, John!

    Jocelyn Aucoin

    1.  I have to say I share Jocelyn’s experience. We used to be in closed
      offices before and it wasn’t good for interaction or innovation. People
      who were often supposed to be doing the exact same work were not, because every
      room’s inhabitants had come up with their own smart ways of doing
      things, that weren’t always all that smart. Management had to really
      encourage cooperation and communication, to limited effect.

      The transition to open office space was a step forward – for most of
      us. No solution, as Jocelyn rightly points out, is te final answer. Everyone thought they were going ot hate it, by the way.

      One point I would like to make: no cubicles. Open office means
      open office. One big large room with everyone in it. Sounds bad to some
      people I know, but at least you’re aware of all the co-workers around you, and cubicles don’t stop that much noise anyway. At least as important, and I know this is often neglected (or simply
      found to costly): plenty of conference rooms and quiet working spaces. Otherwise it’s just a cost-cutting exercise and, as John points out, will definitely hurt productivity. 

    2. The one issue with open space is when calling clients, where the workers are so close, that a client could hear details on another client. 

      There was such an issue when I work when a client on phone heard confidential info from my colleague close to me on another client. Needless to say the client I had on phone never trusted the company again and left

  2. I work at a place where I really thought I would stay at until retirement.  Then early this year, without consulting with us at all, the company made the decision that all software engineers had to move to an open pod type of seating arrangement.  The arrangement is such that anybody walking into the room can see everybody in the room (24 people), and each person is in a grouping of 4 people that are each like corners of a square, backs to each other with an open area between.  Behind each person’s back is an open walking area, where people walk from pod to pod or even completely through the work area to someplace else.

    I am totally disgusted by this.  I’ve been working in computer software for over 20 years, and now the company thinks so little of my contributions that I’m working at what is essentially a table with people constantly walking right behind my back and looking directly at my screens.  The noise level from people in this huge open area talking all the time is so ridiculous that I am forced to constantly wear headphones with chatterblocker (google it) to drown out the talking.  I never, ever in my life wore headphones at work before this, and DO NOT LIKE TO.  Now to be able to concentrate even for a few minutes, the headphones are on, chatterblocker turned up to drown out all the conversations, and I have to try as hard as I can to not be distracted by people constantly walking by.

    So much for working here until retirement.  I’ll be out of this company as soon as I possibly can, and my memory of working here will forever be tainted by this disgusting treatment of knowledge workers.

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