Open Floor Plans Crush the Soul

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Office gossip, overheard conversations and endless chatter: Why everyone hates the open office trend.

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By Sarah Fister Gale

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decade ago, the world of work became enamored with the idea of open office floor plans. Google, Facebook and Microsoft spent millions of dollars remodeling their old cubicle farms into partition-less spaces featuring shared tables, mobile furniture and coffee shop-style seating. These sociable layouts promised to promote collaboration and create unexpected collisions between unrelated teams that would naturally generate disruptive innovations, all while using the office footprint more efficiently.

But in reality, this trend has been a productivity disaster. Several studies found that employees dislike open floor plans because they are noisy, disruptive and lack basic privacy. “Open-office spaces rob employees of the liberty to be frustrated, confused, upset or tired without becoming a spectacle, a distraction or a social pariah,” lamented Claire Mason, liens negotiator for Joseph Farzam Law Firm in Los Angeles. She knows from experience.

Roughly 70 percent of companies now feature some open floor plan concepts, according to Gallup, despite the fact that employees find them disruptive, noisy and counter-productive.

In 2015, Mason got her first big job in collections at Blue Shield of California and was excited to prove her skills. But the office environment where she worked made it impossible. It was an open floor plan where 32 people sat four to a group with chin-level dividers that meant everyone peered at the person across from them all day long. Groupings had just five feet of open space between them. “We were on top of each other,” Mason said.

The close proximity didn’t just make it difficult to focus; it created an intrusive social culture in which everyone had to participate. Any time someone made a phone call or had a conversation, other employees felt the right to provide input, even if it was unhelpful and unproductive, she said. “I couldn’t work more than 10 minutes before I was derailed by social obligations.” If she shunned their advice or failed to contribute, co-workers got offended; and if she participated her manager demanded to know why she wasn’t getting her work done. “People think that if they are talking about work it’s the same as doing work but it’s not,” she said. “There was no way to win in that environment.”

It finally caused Mason to quit the job. “I couldn’t achieve upward mobility in that kind of environment,” she said. “The office layout played perhaps the largest role in my decision to leave.”

Less Productive, Fewer Conversations

Mason is far from alone. Roughly 70 percent of companies now feature some open floor plan concepts, according to Gallup, despite the fact that employees find them disruptive, noisy and counter-productive. A study from Robert Half shows employees who work in open floor plans and semiprivate cubicles cite the lowest productivity levels and the most amount of stress due to their workspace configuration. “Employees in open configurations can feel like they are being watched compared to professionals who have enclosed spaces,” said Kathleen Downs, vice president of finance and accounting for Robert Half in Orlando. “This is often one of the misconceptions of open offices — that they foster collaboration.”

Indeed, a new study from two Harvard researchers found the volume of face-to-face interaction actually decreased by roughly 70 percent in two Fortune 500 offices after they transitioned to open floor plans. “Rather than prompting new opportunities for collaboration, the open architecture caused workers to socially withdraw,” said Ethan S. Bernstein, professor of leadership and organizational behavior, who co-authored the study with Stephen Turban, analytics fellow at McKinsey & Co. “Many employees donned headsets to look busy and stay focused, which made them less accessible,” Bernstein said.

At the same time, the number of instant messages and emails increased. This is noteworthy because workers’ face-to-face and email networks are not the same, suggesting open floor plans cause them to communicate with different people. This could be good news. “In a global enterprise the best person to ask for help may not be sitting next to you,” Bernstein said. While unintentional, the open office design may cause workers to think more strategically about with whom they communicate.

Rather than prompting new opportunities for collaboration, the open architecture caused workers to socially withdraw.”

— Ethan S. Bernstein, professor of leadership and organizational behavior

Welcome to the Neighborhood

The data is clear: Open office designs will not foster more collaboration and will probably make employees less productive. However, there are ways that companies can make these designs more appealing, said Eric Gannon, principal and head of workplace design for Gensler, an architecture firm based in Chicago. “Companies are getting more strategic in their design strategies to find a balance,” he said. Some are adding closed meeting rooms and building neighborhoods — seating grouped by department that might feature partitions — where teams can work collaboratively without the disruption of people passing through. Others are providing mobile partitions that employees can use for private conversations or heads-down work. “The nice thing about these solutions is that they are mobile and adaptable,” Gannon said. “They are easy to undo as employees’ needs change.”

Both Downs and Gannon encourage employers to talk with employees before making any big changes to their office space. Even if the open floor plan is inevitable, letting employees choose the layout, furniture and spacing can help win their buy-in, Gannon said. “It’s important that they feel like their voices are heard.” Designing spaces that can be adapted to accommodate all types of communication preferences also helps ease the transition. “Once users get into the space you are going to make modifications,” he added. Choosing modular elements that can be adjusted to accommodate shifting teams or communication habits will help open office designs stand the test of time.

Telecommuting options are also a nice complement to shared office spaces. “Working from home could be viewed as the new private office,” Downs said. It gives workers the option to do focused work away from the disruption of the office, while using email, text or Facetime to communicate with peers. Almost 3 percent of the U.S. workforce now works from home at least half of the time, and in more than half of the top U.S. metro areas telecommuting exceeds public transportation as the “commute option of choice,” according to FlexJobs’ “State of Telecommuting” report. “It can be a great compromise for companies who want to keep employees happy while keeping their real estate costs down,” Downs said.

Sarah Fister Gale is a writer in Chicago. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.