The open office plan is a disaster

Inc. Magazine

The open office design originally seemed harmless. 

Open offices often feature minimalist modular workstations with no partitions, pop-up and convertible collaboration spaces, library carrel-style break areas, video conferencing zones and — why not? — bleacher seating on one wall for those culture-building pep talks.

The open office plan was supposed to be less expensive and conducive to building a lighter, happier, more open and collaborative company culture.

But it’s backfiring.

Last year, a survey by enterprise software strategist William Belk found that 58 percent of high-performance employees say they need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54 percent of HPEs say their office environment is “too distracting.” The survey netted 700 respondents from a broad swath of industries.

In 2013, researchers from the University of Sydney examined the “privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices” and found that the benefits of easy communication that are intended to go along with open-plan offices don’t outweigh the drawbacks, such as a huge lack of privacy.

And, psychologist Nick Perham found that office noise impairs workers’ ability to recall information and even do basic arithmetic.

The office — once a place where your cubicle seemed semi-shielded and dedicated to your needs, a place where you could even hang a “Do Not Disturb” sign or at least signal that being at your desk meant head-down work mode — has morphed into something resembling a buffet at dinner time, where first dibs determine whether you’ll secure a relatively quiet work space or be resigned to another morning of wearing headphones at the communal work bench to get anything done.

When privacy suffers, the rate of productivity quickly goes downhill, hurting the bottom line.

Open office design, whether for small startups, large corporations or co-working setups, has exploded in popularity over the last 20 years. In 2017, about 70 percent of U.S. offices had low or no partitions. Some companies, including Netflix and Hubspot, are completely open; even their CEOs don’t have private offices.

Open offices started out with great intentions. They became a status symbol of the next generation of entrepreneurs. They were meant to level the playing field, knock down walls, introduce more natural light and keep an office feeling young.

And now, we are heading into very unhealthy territory with this design trend.

When dedicated desks are sacrificed in the name of “creative flexibility,” when introverts are forced to attend more meetings at touchdown tables simply for the trendiness of meeting at touchdown tables, when a phone call echoes across 2,000 square feet, when desk sizes are reduced to fit more workers into one open room, you begin to have a privacy crisis on your hands.

Some employees are raising their voices against this trend. When the new Apple Park spaceship campus debuted its open pod design last fall, some employees reportedly complained about the plan and threatened to quit.

On the one hand, this is a personal privacy issue. With managers and even CEOs typing away next to you, there’s pressure to appear “on” and engaged at all times. Some company workers may also feel peer pressure to work late or sacrifice work-life balance.

In an open office, no one wants to be known as the first out the door. Everyone can see you leaving.

Additionally, there are few private spaces with which to deal with personal issues. If someone is upset or visibly stressed, it distracts the whole team. Some employees may fear taking creative risks if it means everyone in the office will see their experiments or failures.

To top it off, when a human being’s personal space is opened up to invite others in, it can be difficult to accept. We are naturally territorial creatures with a need for categorization, rules and structure. We also like to have a place to put our stuff, even if it’s just some notepads and a coffee mug.

When a company throws all that out the window for trendy design, employees don’t have a physical space to anchor them, and they may feel less significant to the company.

On the other hand, completely open offices also present a business privacy issue. Phone calls, emails, screens, videoconferencing, meetings — all of these can be observed, noted, copied, turned into fodder for gossip and even sabotaged if you have a highly competitive team.

What’s the solution?

Fortunately, companies are starting to wake up and realize that the millennial dream loft isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and are starting to introduce a more moderate form: activity-based workplace design.

ABW presents a mix of open, semi-private and private spaces in one commercial office to meet employees where they are in the moment, not forcing workers to accomplish their tasks in a specific non-ideal space. In this contemporary evolution of ABW, employees still keep their desks. Think a quiet floor with assigned workstations, another floor of private offices and suites with conference rooms, and a floor with a cafe and social hubs.

There is a return to privacy that is gaining some ground, and furniture makers and interior designers are ready for what’s next — and ready to cash in, of course.

Jeff Pochepan is the president of StrongProject.

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