Offices For All! Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad For Employees, Bosses, And Productivity

In part one of our two-part series, Fast Company senior editor Jason Feifer makes a case for giving all workers a little alone time--behind an office door.

Editor's Note: This is one of the most-read leadership articles of 2013. Click here to see the full list.

I had an office. Now I don’t.

I’m not looking for your pity; I want your own righteous indignation. Because you, too, deserve an office. We deserve better. We all deserve offices. But it gets worse: We’ve been told that our small squat in the vast openness of our open-office layouts, with all its crosstalk and lack of privacy, is actually good for us. It boosts productivity. It leads to a happy utopia of shared ideas and mutual goals.

A cubicle of one's own.

These are the words of imperceptive employers and misguided researchers. The open-office movement is like some gigantic experiment in willful delusion. It’s like something dreamed up in Congress. Maybe we can spend less on space, the logic seems to go, and convince employees that it’s helping them. And for a while, the business press (including, let’s be honest, some of the writing in this very publication) took it seriously. “Less space per worker may be inevitable for cost-effectiveness, but it can enhance the working environment, not degrade it,” said a particularly infuriating New York Times piece, who quoted only one critic, a person who claimed all this bustle was troubling for introverts.

No. This is a trap. This is saying, “Open-office layouts are great, and if you don’t like them, you must have some problem.” Oh, I have a problem: It’s with open-office layouts. And I have a solution, too: Every workspace should contain nothing but offices. Offices for everyone. Offices for the junior associate and the assistant editor, and offices for the vice president and the editor-in-chief. Take those long tables, the ones currently lined with laptops at startups, and give them to an elementary school so children can eat lunch on them. We’ll have to do away with all those adorable communal spaces, but they were always a little demeaning, a little not-quite-Starbucks. We won’t need them now that we all have our own meeting place.

Peace and quiet and privacy and decency and respect for all. We people who spend more waking hours at work than we do at home, we people who worked hard to be where we are, we deserve a few square feet and a door. Call me old fashioned, call me Andy Rooney if you must, but Andy Rooney had an office.

Let us pause to count our grievances.

1. We work slower, and our work is worse

About that office I used to have: My most recent one was here, at Fast Company, before a recent full-floor reorganization. There are few private offices here; most everyone (including me now) works at desks with measly half-walls, barriers of privacy only equipped to shield us from the prying eyes of small dogs. In the past, when I needed to focus, I shut my door. The silence was beautiful. It was calming. It made deadlines easier to meet.

Feifer in his happy place.

Out here? I’ve been interrupted at least a dozen times trying to write this, and I’m only a few paragraphs in. That’s not just my perception: Employees in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices, finds research from the University of California, Irvine. And employees who are interrupted frequently report 9% higher rates of exhaustion.

That’s just speaking of the intentional interruptions, of course. I’m now always surrounded by chatter, which means that, like every other office worker in the country, I have to wear earphones. I’m currently listening to Django Reinhardt on Pandora. His talent is timeless. But while it’s easier to think with Django in my ears, it isn’t nearly as easy as silence was. The music just adds to the clutter in my head. Back when I had an office, I left work with my mind still happy and fresh; I emailed myself ideas while walking home, as some newsy podcast told me even more useful info. Now, at the end of a day of nonstop jazz, I leave work feeling fried. I miss my podcasts, which my brain just doesn’t have room for. I walk to the subway in silence, repairing.

Are you unmoved by this argument? I don’t take offense. This piece would be so much better had I written it in private. Between the words “That’s just speaking...” and now, I’ve been interrupted two more times.

2. Our time is not everyone’s time

Proponents of open offices would say all these interruptions are good: We’re in an office to work together, after all. “It eliminated gatekeepers. You didn’t have to make an appointment to see someone,” a former deputy mayor of New York City said about the open-plan Michael Bloomberg imposed. Which sounds nice and all, but hey, what about that “someone” you can now access so easily? Do you think that person might be busy? Might be trying to focus on something, might be on deadline, might have an idea they really need to explore before it vanishes from their minds?

This is the problem with open-office layouts: It assumes that everyone’s time belongs to everyone else. It doesn’t. We are here to work together, sure, but most of the time, we actually work alone. That’s what work is: It is a vacillation between collaboration and solitary exploration. One isn’t useful without the other. When we are working in a group--literally when we sit around a table brainstorming, or when we are having a conversation--we don’t pretend we’re alone. That would just be weird and awkward. So when we’re alone, let’s not pretend we’re in a group.

I’m not advocating for more gatekeepers. Nobody’s giving me a secretary, which is good, because I don’t know where that person would sit. And I hate that by advocating for a few minutes of time to myself, it makes me sound like I don’t enjoy collaboration--as if one must be the opposite of the other. In truth, I love helping others, and I almost never say no when someone asks if I have time. (While writing this paragraph, one colleague drew me away to brainstorm how to describe spreadable chocolate without using the word “spread” too many times. And you wonder what we do all day!) I’m just advocating for very small barriers that announce: “Can’t wait to talk to you, but I am busy right now.”

Think of it this way: Do you answer your phone every time someone calls? I don’t. Publicists will know (or should!) that I never pick up my phone. I have a business card covering my phone’s screen, so I don’t even see the caller ID. A phone call is someone else deciding when you should be available. It says, Deal with me right now! Email it to me, and I’ll get to it as quickly as I can. I know how to prioritize. I look forward to focusing on the response.

3. We all know “serendipity” is fleeting, at best

“Serendipity” is the counterargument to everything I said above. It’s this catch-all word for a fantasy somebody cooked up (Marissa Mayer, maybe?), in which two coworkers are talking about how to re-brand Old Spice’s body wash, and a third wanders by and overhears them--because there’s no distinction between eavesdropping and “overhearing”--and says, “Well, you know, I just saw a guy on a horse, and it was hilarious.” Serendipity! People working together in an unplanned way!

Hogwash.

“There’s some evidence that removing physical barriers and bringing people closer to one another does promote casual interactions,” explains a Harvard Business Review piece that nicely summarized the research on this subject. “But there’s a roughly equal amount of evidence that because open spaces reduce privacy, they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them. Some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.”

I could swing my headphones around my head right this minute and hit at least four very smart, talented, hard-working Fast Company staffers. I like and respect them a great deal. But we have our headphones on pretty much all the time--because that’s what our environment demands of us. We like talking to each other, but we have been put into an environment that tries to manufacture that talking, and now we do the opposite. Serendipity is when we’re both listening to Django at the same time. Though we’ll never know.

4. Open-office layouts distance us from our coworkers

At the last magazine I worked for, everyone had offices. We’d pop into each other’s offices, at first to ask a question or work out some problem, and soon, because nobody could hear us, we’d transition into long and personal conversations. Many people there became close, treasured friends, and awesome collaborators.

But out in the open? It’s far harder to get to know coworkers--and that personal connection is important. “Serendipity” isn’t a matter of matched-up ideas. It’s a matter of knowing how another person thinks. That’s the kind of stuff you learn by getting personal, and that’s not something I want to do out in the open.

Not that I’m a private person. Contrary to that introverts-are-the-only-people-affected New York Times piece, I am an extrovert. At a Fast Company retreat, no joke, I tore my ACL while doing a very acrobatic karaoke. Stone-cold sober. But I don’t wander around forcing everyone to look at my vacation photos, so I’m not going to subject them to 20 minutes of a bunch of overheard personal chitchat either. When I had an office here, colleagues popped in regularly; we had fun. I started a little Whiskey Friday gathering, where everyone was invited to come drink and chat. It was great; we killed off bottles with respectable speed. But we haven’t done it since I moved: Not everyone here is on the same schedule, and a Whiskey Friday in the middle of the office is just a gigantic interruption.

It’s the final tragedy, really: I love my work, I love working with others, I love jazz, and, let’s be clear, I love whiskey. These are things I want for all of us. The open-office layout has diminished the value of it all. And the prescription is so tantalizingly simple, yet kept out of reach because...

Hold on, a colleague just knocked on my chair. I’ll finish that thought later.

[Image: Flickr user Tim Samoff]

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195 Comments

  • Audrey Christophory

    I agree with all these points. I would add one more: open plan offices mean that the idiot who thinks that he's so incredibly important (or at least wants to pretend he is) who comes in to work when he's infectious. At least if he's locked away in his own space, most of his germs will be kept there instead of being spread about.

  • I couldn't agree more. I went from a conjoined-pair of offices to an open office (and my very first cubicle) with this past move and had not been made aware that that was part of the deal. Had I known, I never would have taken the job. It's incredible what a door and a little common courtesy can do. It's a monumental shift to go from having a door, which forces people announce themselves before entering, to a cubicle, which people walk into and snoop on at their leisure.

  • Jenny Teague

    Having been on both sides of the office, I agree 100% with every word. I believe open spaces work in small settings. You know, sharing an office with one or two people, but not an entire department in an open space. Even still, that's provided all the personalities mesh. There is nothing worse than working in an open environment where maybe some of the people get along, but then there's one or two people who don't fit into the clique and then it creates tension. There are so many flaws with the open space design. A lot of things work great in theory but then don't pan out so well when applied.

  • This is the best article I've ever read about open work spaces, of which I am in right now being interrupted as I write this one-sentence comment. Thank you, Jason. May the employers hear ye.

  • Just my two cents. We have an open office but do give our employees the luxury of 'private rooms' special areas cordoned off from everything and mobiles and laptops ensure that they can move anywhere.

    If they need even more privacy to think - there's a small perk of going to the coffee hours even during office hours and billing to the company (no matter who goes and how large the bill).

    The open office space has made us more collaborative, improved productivity across and fostered team work whereby previously in rooms, it was hard to do this. Best of all bosses sit with the team and it helps us get to know them and what they do and think.

  • Brilliant counterargument for this whole misguided movement.

    I call those long tables with a row computers - the Pig's trough. We come in like little piglets and seek an empty station to get our work done (not unlike looking for a sow's teat), and since they are now 'communal', it works on a first come first serve basis. When we can't find one, we are left to wander the open office like lost dejected ones doomed to die of malnutrition.

    This is the supposed improvement since we have adopted the open office layout. I lament the lost of office civility and social freedom.

  • Tom

    Jason: I agree wholeheartedly with you. In fact, I've left 2 companies in the past 5 years which tried to move me, over my strenuous objections, from an office into an open floorplan.

    Realistically, what can we do about it? Writing articles in Fast Company is perhaps better than nothing, but probably not by much. People who read this and agree have already been saying this for years. People who read FC for management insight and don't already believe it will find some excuse to dismiss it.

    There are a few companies which famously insist on offices (with doors) for all "knowledge worker" employees, but not very many. Realistically, these companies are so rare that working at such a place almost eliminates the possibility of having any other criteria for a position, including location. For people who don't want to move, or have an unreasonable commute, this is a problem.

    I've read many articles similar to this one recently. Is there some reason that there aren't more people who insist on quiet offices are in positions to actually do something about it? I can name one exactly company CEO (Spolsky) who believes this, and dozens of CEOS who are vehemently against it. It seems that there are certainly enough people, in raw numbers, for companies to form around just this idea. Even if it's not technically better on average (which I'd find hard to believe), simply being preferable for so many people should make it a workplace of choice.

    Why aren't "Senior Editors" starting new companies with private offices, so we can work for you?

  • Melissa

    I like that you listen to Django Reinhardt at work. Music insulates me from the various noises that I don't need to be a part of while I am concentrating.

  • Barry Poskanzer

    As an architect who has been designing office interiors for four decades, I have learned that there is a big difference between “stylish” and “fashionable.” Stylish is forever. Fashionable is fleeting. Open office formats are the latter. The focus should not be on what is fashionable, but on what is suitable.

    Shared space might make sense within an engineering or R&D department, where employees collaborate frequently. Jobs that require a higher level of concentration –such as editing and writing, working with numbers, etc. – require the peace and quiet of a more private work space. And within a single organization, there is often a wide variety of privacy needs.

    Too many companies are buying today’s most popular model “as sold,” but really they
    should examine who they are and how they operate – then build their office space plan around these needs. The most forward thinking organizations are doing just that.

  • Cassandra

    On behalf of many (introverted or extroverted) librarians and other professionals working at public desks every minute of the work day, thank you!

  • Drimer

    My point of view is completely the opposite. I've been working for more than one year in an open-office plan, and I must say it's helped me not only be productive, but also get to know my colleagues.

    Obviously, this is a matter of personalities, and some people like you might prefer to have an office, which is completely understandable. However, I don't like how you present your article, as if it was a fact, when it's actually your opinion.

    When you say that (when having offices) you go to someone and ask something about work, and then you can transition into long personal conversations but you can't do that in an open-office plan, you should consider whether it's just that *you* can't do it. Maybe it's just that you're not open enough, which is fine, I'm not criticizing, because as I said, it depends on personalities. And I can tell because, I've done that many times, with other co-workers being able to hear me, and actually, they sometimes join the conversation if they have a different opinion, which I think is great and helps us create bonds.

    In the worst cases, where I've really needed to have a chat with someone in private (just a couple of times), it's not so hard to ask that person to go to a meeting room or somewhere where we can openly speak.

  • I work at a small managed services provider, and we own a loft space which is our office. About half of our staff work from their homes for various reasons, but those of us who work in the office have to deal with the noise of our support phone calls all day long. It makes it extremely difficult to talk on the phone (several clients have said to me, "Wow, there are a lot of people in your office," to which I tend to reply that there are only four of us but that we're all on the phone and it's a loft with very few soft surfaces), craft an email that is short enough to engage the user but long enough to explain their issues, or even just read information that's needed to solve a problem.

    We also have no meeting rooms, unless you count the hallway - which I don't. I don't have a place to take a private call. I don't have a place to concentrate on writing a proposal uninterrupted, and I don't get to say no to constant requests for things - all things I could do with an office door.

  • Rich Mistkowski

    You mention how much better this could have been if you had an office? This was a classic. Great post, thoroughly enjoyed it and get it! Thanks

  • The Gnome

    Most people don't even need to go into an office anymore. I think open offices are great for scrum rooms and startups (initially) but otherwise give us some privacy and flexibility or we'll find a company that will.

  • Hank

    Businesses need to put forth the $ and effort to really understand what will work best for their employees and their company. There is no one size fits all solution. Different jobs require different solutions. Which of these companies has spent any time really researching the specific needs of their work and people? Instead of jumping on the latest fad pushed by those who sell these new and better
    "solutions" each company needs to take the time to really understand
    what works best for them. It can take hundres of thousands or millions of dollars to make these kind of changes. What other large expenditures do companies make on such flimsy evidence?

    These decisions should all be based upon the facts of the specific jobs including interaction needs and the people doing the jobs. So someone hears about the great aspects of open offices and decides to make the change. Based on what? A couple of articles or maybe a "study" that they really do not understand anyway
    and is likely based on parameters that in no way fit their needs? Who did the study and who paid for it? What are they selling? The businesses need to do the work and gather their facts for their specific sitution. Otherwise, what sets their organization apart from the others? They end up doing everything the same as everyone else.

    As can be seen in the comments posted here, open spaces work well in some instances and not so much in others. But let's please get back to making important decisions based upon the pertinent facts and not the flavor of the month so that we can make good decisions for our specific needs. Who wants to be the one who approves this type of change and associated $ based upon little to no real data and have it not work out?

  • @amaaanda

    I'm with you. I have a sticky note I stick to my shoulder now to signal when I'm asking not to be interrupted. It helps most of the time.