The open office floor plan: rethinking an awful idea

Those big, wide-open offices don’t work—both for employees and the companies who think they improve collaboration among colleagues. It’s time to rethink what the office is.

Some friends and I were talking about the new Google building at 2000 North Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View, Calif. Truth be told, we’re not impressed. As one person said, it looks like a sagging tent city covered in dragon scales (and not in a good way). But the real kicker? Someone else dared to hope that at least it would have real offices instead of an open office floor plan.

Alas, it won’t. And “that’s one reason why I’m never going back into the office again,” one of my friends declared. “At least at home, I have a private office where I can close the door. Those days are so long gone at ‘work.’”

Personally, I believe open offices are one of the many reasons behind the Great Resignation. Indeed, the hate generated by them is one reason so many people love the idea of working from home now.

That’s especially true with Omicron dumping us right back into the COVID-19 work blues. Remember, one of the supposed great virtues of the open office was that we could share ideas with coworkers sitting nearby. Innovation would flourish, friendships arise, and work wouldn’t feel like work. That’s not really true. As it turns out, the easiest thing to share in an open office are viruses.

Oops.

In a study from a few years ago of an open office, a harmless virus was placed on a single door. By the end of the day, almost the entire office—and bathrooms, doors, and breakroom—were contaminated. That was a generic virus. Omicron's reproduction number (R-value) is 3.47. That is, in a word, “Awful.”

No wonder, with a pandemic going on, no one wants to be packed into an open-air petri dish.

To be clear, my disdain for open offices predates COVID-19; open offices have always been a bad idea. Open-office proponents promise that, in them, your employees will be better able to collaborate with each other and form close-knit teams. Indeed, one 1984 study found that open offices would engender a sense of shared mission and increase collaboration.

The reality is, as a Harvard Business Review study found, that “face-to-face interactions dropped by roughly 70% after the firms transitioned to open offices.” Let that sink in. Open offices aren’t neutral. They actively discourage people from working together.

And why wouldn’t they? Any conversation becomes a public discussion. When you’re trying to concentrate, you’ve got Joe and Anne yacking behind you and George doing an interpretative dance about his PowerPoint problem in front of you.

Another 2013 study found that nearly half of the surveyed workers in open offices said the noise and lack of sound privacy was a real problem for them. I found cubicles annoying enough back when I still worked in offices. The very idea of being in a hot-desking, open-space kindergarten tickles my nerves like fingernails on a chalkboard.

But there are other reasons why companies like the idea of an open office. First, it’s cheaper. Period. That’s it. It also lets bosses watch people more easily. And, as Lindsey Kaufman put it in The Washington Post, “Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing, and unlimited personal cell phone use isn’t occupying billing hours.”

All that open air gives your workers another message: They don’t matter. They’re interchangeable and untrustworthy parts in a corporate machine—just like the cubicles in which they crouch. This is not what you want your valued employees to think.

I’m a big believer in judging staffers by the quality of their work. I could care less about how they do it. If they’re looking at TikTok part of the time, it’s all about the results to me. Making your employees uncomfortable with an open office, or spying on them by literally overlooking them or with technology, is a recipe for failure.

Give your workers the space and privacy they need to do their best work. Whether that involves traditional offices, cubicles, or working from home is up to you. Any way you do it, you’ll end up with more productive and happier workers.

And happier workers generally make for more successful companies.

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