Are Open Plan Offices Inhumane?

Modern zoos go to great lengths to make their animals’ enclosures resemble natural habitats. After decades of keeping wildlife in cramped, sterile cages with no privacy, they discovered that the stress and the deprivation made the creatures more susceptible to disease and shortened their lives.

But some of the most progressive companies in America haven’t yet figured out that, however clean, beautiful and stylish a work environment may look, if it doesn’t take human nature into account, the results may be the same.

Ironically, many of these companies — like such tech giants as Google — expect employees to work extremely long hours and dedicate huge chunks of their lives to the mission. The Googles of the world also provide snacks, games, gyms and beanbag chairs, but for a lot of corporate workers, they get the “open plan” office without all the tech-firm perks.

As with any “progressive” notion, the idea of the “open plan” office had lofty goals. Lowering cubicle walls or eliminating personal workspaces entirely, it was meant to foster communication, collaboration and teamwork. As a bonus, it saved floor space, money and allowed bosses — often sequestered in glass-walled offices around the perimeter — to keep a constant eye on employees.

But, the tide may have turned.

From a March 2015 piece in the Boston Globe:

Which might be why there’s lately been something of an open office backlash. [Boston architect Jeffrey] Tompkins says requests have slowed over the last 18 months at his architecture firm, and even among those companies that start out really enthusiastic, a good 50 percent call back after six months to say, well, on second thought, they actually could use some private space after all.

These offices are often designed to be minimalist, bright, airy and color-coordinated, with shiny surfaces, ergonomic seating and trendy artwork. Of course, the aesthetic only endures if the humans within are clean, tidy and don’t insist on having nonstandard personal items around.

In January 2015, Wired magazine editor-in-chief Scott Dadich wrote a memo to the staff regarding the company’s move into its new $3 million San Francisco workspace (there’s a lot of white furniture). Some of his concerns — like leaving half-finished stories lying around– make sense. But he also laments:

Unfortunately, too often the place where we do that important work looks, at best, like a dorm room.

It’s an embarrassment: coffee stains on walls (and countertops and desks), overflowing compost bins, abandoned drafts of stories and layouts (full of highly confidential content), day-old, half-eaten food, and, yes, I’m going to say it, action figures. Please. WIRED is no longer a pirate ship. It’s the home of world-changing journalism. It’s the West Coast home of Condé Nast. And it’s increasingly a place where we, and our New York colleagues and owners, host artists, founders, CEOs, and advertisers.

Now, Dadich does say that there are spaces on the floor that are “designed to get messy,” but the common areas aren’t among them.

And, for Pete’s sake, take your promotional tchotchkes and toys home, don’t use your own lamp, don’t put your phone on the elevated laptop platform, and wash your dishes (there’s no word on whether a “Your Mom Doesn’t Work Here” sign was part of the decor).

Dadich does say he won’t go as far as Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, who apparently demoted people for making a mess, or Martha Stewart, who Dadich says once dictated the proper sorts of writing instruments, but he concludes:

I’m confident you’ll understand exactly what I’m saying here and clean it up, not just for me but for all of us.

In the end, the biggest problems with the open office may not be smelly lunches, knick-knacks, nosy neighbors, or having to go outside to schedule doctor’s appointments.

First, there’s the noise — the incessant, inescapable noise — both of other people and from some employers’ misguided notion that workplaces, like nightclubs, should have piped-in music.

From a January 2014 piece in The New Yorker:

In laboratory settings, noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance. The psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help: even that, Perham found, impairs our mental acuity.

Exposure to noise in an office may also take a toll on the health of employees. In a study by the Cornell University psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson, clerical workers who were exposed to open-office noise for three hours had increased levels of epinephrine—a hormone that we often call adrenaline, associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response.

What’s more, Evans and Johnson discovered that people in noisy environments made fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain. The subjects subsequently attempted to solve fewer puzzles than they had after working in a quiet environment; in other words, they became less motivated and less creative.

Of course, one can turn to noise-canceling headphones — the bigger and the brighter-colored the better, to discourage interruptions. But that doesn’t remove one of the things that plagued those zoo animals — being constantly on display, with nowhere to hide and no respite from prying eyes.

For introverts, the open-plan office can be torture and result in attempts at creative coping strategies.

In the end, for those who can’t work at home or voluntarily in public at coffee shops and libraries, what may spell the end of the open office is that people just don’t get as much work done.

As ZDNet reported in June 2015:

A study of 42,000 office workers in 303 buildings by Professor Richard de Dear and Jungsoo Kim from Sydney University found that open-plan offices were “disruptive to productivity” because of “uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy”. This large study says “our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues” and “clearly indicates [that] the disadvantages of open plan offices clearly outweigh the benefits”. (The study, Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices, was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.)

Like fences, walls may ultimately be the best neighbors.