Open offices are everywhere, and yet no one seems to like them. Ostensibly they create a "collaborative" atmosphere that would boost creativity (and cut down on rent). But that theory might be bull—so why do we still use them?
This week the New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova methodically broke down the reasons open offices destroy productivity. Namely, they’re too noisy or too quiet; they're full of distractions; they're petri dishes for viruses; but perhaps worst of all, they give employees zero privacy to think or act without being seen by everyone. And though younger workers may prefer the setup’s more casual nature, it’s often to their own detriment:
"Though multitasking millennials seem to be more open to distraction as a workplace norm, the wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation: they enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run."
While Konnikova never goes as far as calling the open office something "devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell," as Oliver Burkeman does for the Guardian, there is mounting opinion against our most popular way of arranging desks and chairs. Even those that aren’t flagrantly opposed to open offices, like this 2008 analysis from Knoll Workplace Research, don’t necessarily recommend them either. "The results of Knoll’s research suggest that employee expectations and preferences related to workspace type are complex and continue to evolve," they conclude, before proceeding to "make recommendations on how to manage the change process and how to most successfully leverage the use of both open and enclosed spaces."
Want to implement some corporate compromise and get cubicles? They’re even worse, according to the Harvard Business Review.
"The worst part, according to the data, is that these office workers can’t control what they hear—or who hears them. Lack of sound privacy was far and away the most despised issue in the survey, with 60% of cubicle workers and half of all partitionless people indicating it as a frustration. (Researchers guess that the partitionless people are slightly less bothered by it because at least they can see where the noise is coming from, which gives them a sense of control—no matter how illusory. Based on my own partitionless office, I’d also guess a lot of those workers are listening to music on headphones to block out distractions.) "
So what makes for an alternative? While giving every employee their own private office may make them happiest, it’s not very practical. But maybe all you need to do is just have that private space ready for your employees whenever they need it, writes William Kremer for the BBC. Kremer spoke to London architect and professor Alexi Mermot on the topic of the ideal workspace:
She describes a building she visited in Switzerland which offered workers a choice of sofas, coffee table areas, libraries, pool-style recliner chairs and even "a botanical garden with a few work tables among the plants."
But to give employees the freedom to wander about with their laptops, hiding from colleagues or seeking them out as they wish, may mean some organizations have to rethink the way they work and communicate.
It’s an approach that may truly offer the best of all possible worlds, and a look at the most innovative tech offices of 2013 is a good place to start for inspiration.