Yes, the Open Office Is Terrible — But It Doesn’t Have to Be
It began as a postwar dream for a more collaborative and egalitarian workplace. It has evolved into a nightmare of noise and discomfort. Can the open office be saved, or should we all just be working from home?
If you work in an office, or if you’ve ever worked in an office, there’s a good chance it was an open office.
The open office design has been around for decades, in a variety of forms, and it has been eliciting strong reactions for almost as long. If you are a cynic, you might think an open office is all about cramming the maximum number of employees into the minimum amount of real estate. But you could also imagine that open offices can produce a grand flowering of collaboration and communication and idea-generation.
So is the open office a brilliant concept that we’ve all been falsely maligning? Or a cruel cost-cutting strategy that causes deep emotional scarring in those subjected to it?
The office is such a quintessential emblem of modern society that it may seem it’s been around forever. But of course it hasn’t. Nikil Saval, the author of Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, describes the American office as essentially an afterthought, one designed in an era in which the farming and manufacturing sectors dominated the economy.
“People thought, well, offices are essentially paperwork factories,” Saval says. “So we should just sort of array them in an assembly-line sort of formation.”
An assembly-line formation meant a big room filled with long rows of desks and, scattered on the periphery, private offices for the managers. This factory model, which got its start in the late 19th century, came to be known as the “American Plan.” It was standard office form for decades, at least in the U.S.
But in the middle of the 20th century, in Germany, brothers Wolfgang and Eberhard Schnelle started to wonder whether this layout was really a good way to design an office. In 1958, they created the Quickborner consulting group with the idea of bringing some intentionality to modern office design.
“One of the ideas that came to them was that an office is not like a factory, it’s actually a different kind of workplace,” Saval says. “And it requires its own sort of system. And so maybe there isn’t a reason to have desks in rows. Maybe there isn’t a reason for people to have private offices at all, if essentially the office is not about producing things, but it’s about producing ideas and about producing communication among different people.”
The Schnelle brothers introduced a concept called the Bürolandschaft or “office landscape.” Their goal was to create an office that was more collaborative, more egalitarian, and which facilitated communication and the flow of ideas. Desks were arranged in clusters in a manner that may have seemed haphazard but was actually carefully planned.
Their design — the first truly open-office model — migrated to England and the U.S. It was considered a breakthrough, but the earliest open offices drew complaints similar to the ones we hear today. Lots of complaints. The lack of physical barriers meant that the sound of ringing phones and clacking typewriters traveled freely, making it harder to communicate. “It stopped facilitating the thing it was supposed to facilitate,” Saval says, “which was communication.”
Meanwhile, an American named Robert Propst was working for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, in Michigan. Propst was intrigued by the “office landscape” idea — its openness and its egalitarian aspirations — but he also appreciated its practical shortcomings. He started studying office design, talking to anthropologists and social psychologists for insights into what workers need.
Propst came to the conclusion that people needed more control over their workspace. He and the designer George Nelson came up with a new layout in which each office worker would be surrounded by a suite of objects to help them work better. In 1964, Herman Miller debuted the “Action Office,” which came complete with a standing desk, a regular sitting desk, and a telephone booth.
Design critics loved the Action Office, but it was too expensive to produce at scale. So Propst and Nelson came up with a new version, “Action Office 2,” which featured three fabric-wrapped walls. You may know the Action Office 2 by its more generic name: the cubicle. Herman Miller released it in 1968.
The cubicle promised a variety of advantages. It was flexible, could serve as a conference room when necessary, and was designed to, as Saval says, “mitigate the kind of chaos that an open office plan or an office landscape might otherwise have.” Soon, the cubicle was spreading to companies everywhere.
But the cubicle could also be exploited. Most notably, it allowed employers to squeeze more workers into less space.“The whole notion of what Propst was trying to do — give a worker a space that they could control — was turned into the exact opposite,” Saval says. “It was clear that his concept had become the most-loathed symbol of office life.”
Ultimately, the revolutionary, freedom-giving cubicle came to be seen as a sort of corporate version of solitary confinement. Propst, like the Schnelle brothers before him, did not succeed in creating a vibrant and efficient open office. And yet, most offices today are still open offices. Why are we holding on to this concept if it makes so many people so unhappy?
Ethan Bernstein, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, has spent the last several years researching how modern workplaces affect human behavior and performance. He says that managers are primarily impressed by the cost savings of open offices and some employees really like the model on its merits. They believe it facilitates conversations that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, the exchange of ideas, unforeseen collaboration.
“If you want to have a certain kind of interaction that’s deep, productive in idea-generation, or in something that requires us to have lots of ‘bandwidth’ between each other, it’s nice to have that face-to-face interaction,” Bernstein says.
So face-to-face communication is important, at least for some purposes and on some dimensions. And an open office is designed to facilitate more face-to-face communication. But does it work?
In search of an empirical answer to this question, Bernstein and Stephen Turban, a business writer and researcher, launched a study of 152 employees at two Fortune 500 companies. Both companies were white-collar, professional settings that were converting from cubicles to open offices. Participants, all of whom opted in to the experiment, were given sociometric badges with sensors that allowed the researchers to record the extent of their communication with other workers. The researchers also measured the volume (though not the content) of each employee’s emails and instant messages. This allowed them to compare participants’ communications before and after the switch to an open office.
They found that, after a switch to the open office, face-to-face communication decreased by approximately 70%, while electronic communication increased by 20% to 50%. It’s difficult to determine what these numbers mean for communication — how many minutes of verbal communication is equivalent to one email, for example — but Turban suspects that something was lost in companies’ transition to open offices.
“Even if we saw an increase in the amount of virtual communication which totally made up for the face-to-face communication, what you probably saw was a loss in richness of communication,” he says. “The net information that’s being conveyed was actually less.”
Bernstein and Turban didn’t collect data on productivity and performance, but Bernstein thinks the research has some clear implications for companies.
“There are probably lots of contexts that we can think of where more face-to-face interaction would be useful, and lots of contexts in which we think more face-to-face interaction would not be useful,” Bernstein says. “And that’s where I’d actually prefer to take the conversation about productivity… Managers of property, managers of organizations have not thought about this being a trade-off.”
So an empirical study of open offices finds that the primary benefit they are meant to confer — more face-to-face communication and the good things such communication can lead to — actually moves in the opposite direction! It would appear that being put out in the open leads most people to close themselves off a bit. Why? Maybe people don’t want to disturb co-workers by forcing them to listen to ideas and conversations. Or maybe people compensate for the openness of the open office with behavior that sends a do-not-disturb signal: concentrating intensely on your screen, or putting on headphones to block out the noise.
And then there’s what Bernstein calls “the transparency paradox,” the theory that more transparent workplaces create less transparent employees. For instance, let’s say you’ve been really productive all morning; now you want to take a break. You want to check your fantasy football lineup or you want to look up some recipes for dinner. But you don’t want everyone in the office, especially your boss, to see what you’re doing. So, you do it anyway but you’re constantly looking over your shoulder in case you need to shut down the fantasy football or recipe tabs. This affects your productivity, resulting in wasted energy and time.
“We tend to believe these days that we get our best work done when we can be our authentic selves,” Bernstein says. “Very few of us get up on a stage in front of a large audience, which is somewhat of how some people encounter the open office, and feel we can be our authentic selves.”
Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford, has been studying what makes firms productive and successful for years. He says he’s not surprised by Bernstein and Turban’s finding.
“There’s a huge problem with open offices in terms of collaboration,” Bloom says. “You have no privacy. Whereas if it’s in a slightly more closed environment, it’s easier to discuss ideas, to bounce things around.”
Bloom co-authored a paper that tracked a large online travel agency in China, called Ctrip, after it randomized some employees into working from the ultimate closed environment: home. The researchers found that working from home increased productivity by 13% — more than anyone had expected. Employees also seemed to be happier; their attrition rates were lower. The employees attributed the effect to one thing in particular.
“It’s just much quieter working from home,” Bloom says. “They complained so often about, you know, the amount of noise and disruption going on in the office. They’re all in an open office and they tell us about, you know, people having boyfriend problems, ‘there’s a cake in the breakout room,’ the World Cup sweepstakes.”
Not everyone in the experiment, however, loved working from home. At the end of nine months, Ctrip gave all its employees the option of working from home or at the office. About 50% of the Ctrip employees who had been randomized into the work-from-home group chose to come back to the office. Most said they’d gotten lonely at home.
The more you learn about the productivity and happiness of office workers in different settings, the more obvious it is that one key ingredient is often overlooked: choice. Some employees really might be better off at home; others might prefer the cubicle; and some might thrive in an open office. It also seems clear that no one environment will be ideal for every task.
Janet Pogue McLaurin, a leader of the global workplace practice at design-and-architecture firm Gensler, says that workers spend about half their time focusing on solo work, slightly over 25% of their time working in person with others, and about 20% of their time “working” with others electronically. Each of those types of work require different settings. Designers like Pogue McLaurin use different strategies to create those settings. They might create buffers in between spaces designed for quiet or noisy activities, or they might use certain building materials to dampen noise in areas meant for focused individual work.
It may not surprise you that an executive with a design-and-architecture firm is arguing that the solution to the modern office is… better design and architecture. But Gensler has done a great deal of research in all different kinds of offices, all different kinds of companies, all over the world. And they’ve found it’s also important to account for what economists call heterogeneous preferences, and what normal people call individual choice.
“Choice is one of the key drivers of effective workspace, and we have found that the most innovative firms actually offer twice as much choice and exercise on that choice than noninnovative firms do,” Pogue McLaurin says. “And choice is really around autonomy, about when and where to work. It could be as simple as having a choice of being able to do focus work in the morning, or being able to work at home a day, or in another work setting in the office.”
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