Open Office Blues

Shh! Be quiet!

I’m trying to work!

The greatest corporate lie of the last 20 years (and geez, there have been more than a few candidates for that honor) is that the open office concept works.

What nonsense.

Article after article has suggested that somehow this openness translates into faster communication and synergistic creativity as peers and coworkers no longer have to slog down the hall to have a word with Fred or pitch an idea to Joan.

As if.

What open really means is that employers analyzed the cost of walls, doors, and related HVAC and determined the savings in same would be greater than the loss of productivity caused by shepherding people into a corral and hoping they do the right things more or less. Have you seen a stockyard? The analogy is close.

Open really means you become intimately familiar with practices and predilections of your closest neighbors.

  • The person who makes numerous personal calls all day? Right there
  • The one who chews constantly on various foods (hopefully)? Next door
  • That awful techno music you swore no one actually listened to? Around the corner
  • Endless discussions of crockpot vs slow cook just across the aisle
  • And the never-ending sports chatter rivaling even the best AM radio can be heard across the room

And on and on it goes, from people blowing noses loudly (or otherwise clearing themselves) to those raised in a barn who feel compelled to yell over the minimalist cube “walls” railing at their coworkers all day in frenzies of both good and bad nature.

Let me be clear: open sucks.

Emerging research clearly indicates it has a downward effect on productivity, but I don’t need research to confirm what I experience every day. People wandering from their desks for longer and longer periods to escape the tumult, people using ear buds (and noise-canceling ear phones) to get some peace and people re-arranging their cubes so chair backs face the opening all but telling co-workers “go away!”. There’s your research.

Running  a start-up and looking to save money? Either hotel it letting people pick space when they arrive or do the ultimate cost-savings/productivity-boosting step and let your folks work from home. Either solution will get you a more productive workforce.

Just don’t stuff them all in the afore-mentioned corral, turn up the ambient noise and try to convince them that its anything other that a cost-savings for you. Its not.

You might pen people up like cattle, but they’re smarter than that.


8 thoughts on “Open Office Blues

  1. I really hear this Christopher and from my own experience can definitely relate in terms of how much more productive I was when I found a quiet room to work in for those times I just had to get get my head down & concentrate on something – even more so at home.
    In their favour though (and I’m conscious my experience wasn’t individual cubes but rows of desks facing other rows with a shoulder height pin board wall between them) was the ability to just stand up and see if Bob was in before popping over for a chat, the chance to overhear something that was relevant to your work that it was worth you joining in on and, a biggy for me, the chance to notice if someone wasn’t themselves so you could check in with them.
    But I like the idea that in the future we can do away with lots of offices & have teams come together when they need to in other ways and in other places – and for people to feel they can just pick up the phone for a chat if they’re having one of those ‘not themselves’ days.

    • Yes, I see your points Helen and wouldn’t disagree. I just think it’s time employers stopped pretending the cube farms drive collaboration – they drive noise actually and decrease productivity. I wouldn’t mind them so much if employers just copped to the real reason and said, hey – this is cheaper. At least I could respect them for being honest if not agree with them. Happy holidays Helen – thank you so much for sharing!

  2. Interesting points here Christopher, and as a newcomer to the workforce I really don’t know any different to be honest. Every workspace I’ve been in has been open to some degree, one was even a hot desking environment. I guess I am used to living in a world of ‘noise’, not just from a literal perspective but also from an information and connectedness perspective too.

    It would be great to have a workspace where people actually chose the exact way they could work, as opposed to penning people up like cattle like you point out. Until I experience working in a different way I am none the wiser!

  3. Thought-provoking as always. I have worked in both and experienced the good and bad of both. The trouble with having only one type of work space is that you are really only catering to the style of some of your employees.

    If you have an open-concept, but plenty of private spaces available then it can work. If you have a cubicle farm / office layout, but have “collaboration spaces” then it can work too.

    Assuming that everyone works the same way in the same environment, in my opinion, is one of the key sources of lack of productivity.

    Good post.

    • As always, your analysis improves the idea I started with. Thank you for that, and kudos to you for being the first person to comment on one of my posts in 2015. I could not have wished for a better person to do so!

  4. I couldn’t agree more, but I’m one of those highly sensitive people who do better in calm, quiet environments. In the office, if I’m not on the phone or actively having a conversation, I’ve usually got my headphones on. I find it very difficult otherwise to tune out the many conversations around me and focus on my work.
    On the days I need to get a lot of stuff done I work from home, if at all possible.

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