Open-plan offices will always be terrible.
Oscar Wilde is said to have said, “God overestimated man’s abilities a bit when he made him.” Our species is able to do big stupid things. The fact that open-plan offices are still around is the 4,000th example of how bad things are.
Researchers have known for decades that open-plan offices are bad for companies, employees, health, and morale. Still, they refuse to die. To be happy and healthy, people need some privacy, like walls and a door. Still, employers don’t give workers what they need and don’t do what’s in their own best interests, decade after decade.
The idea behind open-plan offices is that walls and rooms are signs of authoritarianism, social isolation, and hierarchy. People often think that if you put them all in one big room or in low cubicles, they will work together and a spirit of equality and togetherness will rule.
This high-minded theory fits well with the logic of cost per square foot, which is less idealistic. If you pack a lot of people into a small space with no walls between them, you can hire more people for less money.
The first problem is that open floor plans don’t make it easier for people to work together face-to-face. In fact, they make it harder. People can only handle a certain amount of socializing. If you push them right up against each other, they will just put on headphones and hide. Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban did a study that has been cited a lot. They found that when companies switched to more open-plan offices, workers talked to each other in person about 70 percent less and used email and instant messaging more.
Another study of people who worked in open offices in big U.S. cities found that 31% didn’t say what they really thought on the phone because they didn’t want their co-workers to hear.
Bernstein and Ben Waber wrote in Harvard Business Review, “If someone starts a conversation and a coworker gives him an annoyed look, he won’t do it again. Fourth-wall norms spread quickly, especially in public places.
The second issue is that open floor plans make people less happy and less productive. In 1997, some workers at an oil and gas company in western Canada switched to an open plan design. After six months, psychologists found that all of the employees’ lives had gotten worse: they were more stressed, less happy, and less productive.
In 2011, Matthew Davis, a psychologist, and others looked at more than 100 studies about office settings. A few years later, Maria Konnikova wrote in The New Yorker about what he had found: that the open space plans hurt the workers’ ability to pay attention, be productive, think creatively, and be happy. Compared to normal offices, there were more unplanned interactions between employees, more stress, and less motivation and ability to focus.
Helena Jahncke and David Hallman found in a 2020 study that employees in quieter one-person cell offices did 14 percent better on a cognitive task than employees in open plan offices.
The third problem with open floor plans is that they are bad for employees’ health. When there is a lot of noise around, it should be clear that people have trouble concentrating and staying calm.
A study led by Elizabeth Sander found that noise in an open-plan office made people feel 25% worse and made them sweat 34% more. A study published in The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health found that people who work in two-person offices and open-plan offices take 50 and 62 percent more sick days, respectively, than people who work in cellular one-person offices.
A lot of the evidence I’m giving here is not new. It’s been around for a long time. And it confirms the patterns that have been seen for hundreds of years in the way people are creative. Most people need time alone to come up with ideas, time with other people to test their ideas, and more time alone to make their ideas better.
Even so, this old knowledge and the recent flood of evidence haven’t changed the way many companies design their offices much. There are articles that say the end of the open floor plan office is coming, but it still isn’t over. Fortune says that after the pandemic, many companies are adding more conference rooms and reducing the number of desks that are assigned to each person. This could make it harder for people to get privacy.
It’s possible that a company’s short-term budget concerns are more important than its long-term self-interest. Taylorism might not go away for good. Managers want to make it seem like they can see and control their employees, supposedly to get the most work done. It’s also possible that the idea of “transparency” will never go away. This is the false belief that if we make all organizations clear, people will trust them more. It could also be about who has the most power. If people have their own offices, it is up to them, not the boss, to decide how they look.
Either way, this less-than-ideal place of work still exists, which is another sign, as Oscar Wilde would no doubt say, of how stupid people are.