Open Offices: Yea or Nay?

Although open office plans have increasingly become the norm for workplaces across the U.S., not everyone is as enthralled with them as we might be led to think: In a recent piece for the Washington Post, Lindsey Kaufman took the open office plan to task — and I do have to say, she's got a pretty compelling argument against it.

According to the New Yorker, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70 percent of American offices follow an open plan these days; however, Kaufman offers evidence, both statistic-based and anecdotal, that suggests they’re not actually helping to boost productivity. In fact, they look like they’re actually hindering it. According to a 2013 study cited by Kaufman, “Nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30 percent complained about the lack of privacy.” Less than 10 percent of workers had ever cited “ease of interaction,” which open offices are supposed to facilitate, as an issue when they worked from partitioned settings — and guess what a previous study found? “The loss of productivity due to noise distraction was… doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices.” Ouch.

Additionally, Kaufman described her own experience switching from a partitioned plan to an open one as follows:

“Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time.

“As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults."

To be fair, I’ve spent the majority of my own professional life either in atypical surroundings (such is the nature of life in the theatre) or working remotely from home. Since the time I’ve spent in an actual office is so limited — less than a year — I’m perhaps not terribly well-equipped to compare open office plans with the sort that provide partitions and private offices; but for what it’s worth, my office time did occur in one with an open plan, and I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.

I realize, though, that a lot of what made the experience enjoyable was unique to the company I worked for. It was small, with each team (roughly six total of around five people each) occupying their own set of tables; as such, our workspace was more like a few smaller rooms lined up with each other and less like a football field. And the wide open space did make everyone more approachable: Not only did I get to know my co-workers a little quicker than I would have had we all been shut away from each other when I first started there, but also — and perhaps more importantly — I always felt like I could ask for clarification if needed, especially when I was learning the ropes. True, a good deal of that comfort level had to do with how awesome my co-workers and boss were in the first place; the fact that we were all sitting across from each other, though, definitely helped, too. It was a prime example of the “fostering camaraderie” benefit championed by most proponents of open offices at its best.

But I can definitely see how an open plan could be a problem, particularly in large companies. It’s easy to read Kaufman’s declaration that losing her private office “felt like my boss had ripped off my clothes and left me standing in my skivvies,” as a “poor little privileged employee” kind of thing: “Oh, your nice, private office is being taken away and now you’ll have to rub shoulders with the lowly former cubicle dwellers? How awwwwwwwful for you!” But when you stop to think about it, she’s got a point. If my open office had housed not 30 people, but 300? Good grief. The gigantic space, full of all the noise 300 people are capable of making and totally lacking any sort of privacy, would almost certainly have felt oppressive instead of open; there would have been significantly more distractions; and generally, I would imagine my blood pressure would have shot through the roof.

So should we all really be as gung ho about open office plans as we seem to be? Maybe not. I think one of the important takeaways from Kaufman’s piece, thoughy, isn’t that the open office plan can never, ever work — it’s that the idea needs much more refinement before it can be the workplace utopia most people seem to want it to be. Kaufman’s suggestions on how to do so target both the higher-ups who implement the plans themselves (creating a few private areas for those needed, for example) and employees who sound like they could use a few lessons in common courtesy (e.g., keeping the music down. Related: Who the heck blasts their music without headphones in public space like an office?! Worst. Co-worker. Ever ). Other elements I suspect might improve the open office environment include working with the format’s limitations with regards to bigger companies, rather than against them: Instead of one gigantic open plan housing every single employee, for example, what about divvying the space up into a few smaller ones? You still get the open feel, but with less hustle and bustle and perhaps with a little less of a "Big Brother is watching" atmosphere.

But maybe that’s just me. I can’t really complain, since I’m writing this post quietly from my couch. Studies have proven that working remotely improves productivity, so maybe we should just do away with office all together. Who’s with me?

Images: Phillie Casablanca/Flickr; morriganfreeman/Tumblr; Giphy (2)