The open-plan office fad took off as a dream for a more collaborative and egalitarian workplace. Tear down those walls! Ditch the soul-crushing cubicles! Dispense with the remaining private offices that reinforce the classist notion that your manager is better than you! Do away with division and hierarchy, embrace openness and transparency, and collaboration will flow. People would come into your office and say “Wow, this place has energy!”
Wouldn’t it be nice if this were true?
What really happens in an open-plan office
The reasoning behind the idea of an open office is simple and makes sense in theory: fewer physical barriers – more communication and collaboration.
Too bad it doesn't work this way.
Most of us already know this from experience, and for as long as these floor plans have been in vogue, studies have debunked their benefits as well.
A 2018 study by Harvard Business School analyzed over 100,000 conversations at two Fortune 500 companies before and after they switched to open office layouts. They found that face-to-face interaction decreased by about 70% while the use of email and messaging grew by over 50%.
In a conclusion that should surprise absolutely no one who has ever worked in an office, the Harvard study discovered that we need to focus to get things done, and most of us can't concentrate without privacy.
Nick Perham, a psychologist who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that the commotion of open offices makes it difficult for the workers to recall information, and even do basic arithmetic. And rather than discussing work in front of a large audience, employees simply exchange messages, defeating the purpose of an open office.
So instead of open face-to-face collaboration, you get noise-canceling headphones and Slack. Many open offices do include private rooms that people can book when they need to concentrate – but isn't that the case most of the time?
“Look how busy I am.“
“In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
— Cal Newport, the author of the book Deep Work
In an open office, even if you don't intend to slack off, the feeling of being constantly observed creates the pressure to always appear visibly busy. That means answering emails, scheduling and attending meetings, making sure to always weigh in on Slack, and doing other superficial tasks – none of which help you get real work done.
Don't plan anything for the flu season
Open offices aren't great for your team's health either.
A study of 2,400 employees found that as the number of people working in a single office went up, the number of employees who took sick leaves rapidly increased. Workers in two-person offices took 50% more sick days than those in single private offices, while those who worked in open offices were out sick an average of 62% more often.
Taking it to the next level of hell: “hot-desking”
“What can we do to make this worse?” is what most likely was going through the minds of the managers who came up with the concept of “hot-desking”. If you're lucky enough to never have heard of it, “hot-desking” is when no one in an office has their own desk and instead just sits wherever there’s a free seat.
CBRE, a real estate firm, carried out a survey of nearly 400 multinational companies, finding that two-thirds plan to adopt a “hot-desking” workplace by 2020 – up from the current 30%. Because who wouldn't want to combine the clamor of an open office with the joy of hunting the last rush-hour seat on your commute?
Whatever little comfort that an open office can offer is completely denied when employees need to roam the building in search of a desk. Are you an early bird looking forward to a quiet and productive morning? Tough luck, the last desk was nabbed by Karen in accounting.
The origins of the open-plan office fad
As with so many things today, we have Google and Facebook, to thank (or curse).
Google renovated its headquarters in Mountain View, California in 2005, with the help of architect Clive Wilkinson. He eschewed the cubicle-heavy interiors of the company’s previous office for something that resembled a neighborhood, signaling the dawn of a new professional era and started a trend that soon spread across Silicon Valley and beyond.
Mesmerized by Google's success, other tech startups proliferated and started looking for cheap ways to differentiate themselves from their predecessors, while at the same time projecting the same image of success and innovation as the emerging tech giant:
“The attitude was: We’re inventing a new world, why do we need the old world? We had companies come to us and say, ‘We want to be like Google.’ They were less sure about their own identity, but they were sure they wanted to be like Google.”
— Clive Wilkinson, the architect behind Google's office design
The open office had become the face of innovation in Silicon Valley but also a powerful metaphor. Facebook soon followed, opening its Menlo Park headquarters which now houses roughly 2,800 employees in a single 10-acre room – reportedly the largest open office in the world.
“The idea is to make the perfect engineering space: one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together,” says Mark Zuckerberg.
Lost amid the symbolism are the employees themselves.
Dare to resist the hype
“Not every programmer in the world wants to work in a private office. In fact quite a few would tell you unequivocally that they prefer the camaraderie and easy information sharing of an open space. Don’t fall for it. They also want M&Ms for breakfast and a pony. Open space is fun but not productive.”
— Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Trello and CEO of Stack Overflow
While most companies appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of open-plan offices, not everyone thinks that privacy is overrated. Joel Spolsky of Stack Overflow has been a vocal proponent of designing offices in such a way that gives employees control over their workspace, so that they can get their work done in peace, with scheduled time for “cross-pollination” between teams.
It's a little-known fact that, during his time at Pixar, Steve Jobs tried and rejected the classic open-plan office, opting instead for distraction-free individual offices combined with large shared recreational areas. Unlike the traditional open office, which resembles a hotel lobby filled with desks, Pixar's headquarters aimed to foster openness and socialization not when people are trying to get work done but when they're taking a break from it.
David Heinemeier Hansson, the creator of Ruby on Rails and co-founder of Basecamp, is equally unequivocal in his stance on open-plan offices, outlined in his aptly titled article “The open-plan office is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad idea”.
Our own team at Nuclino makes sure that every member has the privacy they need to focus and get things done with no distractions. Even though our team is small and nimble enough to be able to work productively in one room, we make it a habit to work remotely part of the week and keep the nexus of our work online. Want to know what’s going on? Check Nuclino or Slack.
In the end, it's all about the $ per ft²
Open offices clearly suck. So why are you (most likely) still working in one? Behind all the fluff, there is a simple explanation: they save insane amounts of money.
Much like airlines trying to cram as many passengers as possible into a plane, companies all over the world do the same with their employees. Real estate association CoreNet Global estimated that the average space per employee fell from 225 ft² in 2010 to 176 ft² in 2013.
According to calculations from Erik Rood, an analyst in Google’s human resources department, this adds up to hundreds of millions of dollars in savings.
Of course, this doesn’t account for the inevitable loss of team productivity.
Despite all the research showing that open-plan offices decrease employee satisfaction and hurt productivity, they have been surprisingly hard to kill. Cubicles are now decidedly uncool and there may be no going back.
And while the collaborative benefits of open offices are clearly false, it’s hard to argue with the fact that open offices make sense from a practical perspective. They are cheaper, more flexible, and easier to manage when your team grows in size. And the people who make the decisions about the office design are usually the same people who make the financial decisions – so chances are, we are stuck with it.
So how can we make it work?
Work from home (at least some of the time).
There is time for discussions, collective brainstorming, and feedback sessions, and there is time for focused individual work, and the latter usually requires the level of privacy that an open office can't offer.
Treat your office like a library, not a kitchen.
Productive open offices exist all around the world every day – they’re called libraries! They are full of people working, reading, thinking, writing, and designing, heads down, quiet, and distraction-free. If you need to discuss anything with a few colleagues, grab a room.
Don't stack desks on top of each other.
Give your team enough space and arrange the desks in such a way that no one is looking at anyone else’s screen. Knowing that people behind you may be peeking over your shoulder is guaranteed to destroy your productivity, however quiet your office may be.