At my most recent job, I did all of my best work at home. I would actively try to avoid the office for as long as possible. At home, I had two desks and complete control over my environment. Distractions and breaks were choices.
Once I went into the office, there were constant distractions that weren’t optional — other employees, dogs barking, impromptu meetings, birthday celebrations. It was very difficult to get into flow states and incredibly easy to be broken from them. Of all the places I could work, my desk at the office was often the worst option.
When I’m in a crowded space, my thoughts also get crowded. I feel overwhelmed by stimuli and the inability to escape them. In contrast, when I have space (mental and physical), I’m able to challenge and understand my thoughts and assumptions. The quality of my thinking goes up significantly.
I’ve realized I kind of hate open offices.
The Rise of the Open Office
“We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity — and people walking by each other teaching new things.”
The open office sounds great in theory. Put everyone in one room, and you’ll get more synergy than you can dynamically optimize. Marketing and Design will work side by side on skunk works projects, Engineering and Product can knock out questions and bugs immediately, and communication will flow through the organization naturally.
Some 80 percent of all offices now have an open floor plan. Traditional companies have moved toward open plans to inject some much-needed creativity and serendipity in their offices, just like the cool startups.
Makes sense, right? There’s one big problem: Open offices don’t work.
Full disclosure: I am part of the “problem” with open offices. I’m extroverted and when faced with the choice of diving into a deep, complex problem or shooting the shit with my co-workers, I too often choose the latter. I’m not alone in this.
Workers who are in open-office environments suffer by almost every measure. According to the New Yorker, one study of an oil and gas company in 1997 showed wide-ranging detrimental effects after the company transitioned to an open floor plan:
The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.
When comparing performance to regular offices, open-office employees experience more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.
Research by Auckland University of Technology also shows that open offices often lead to anti-social behaviors. As senior lecturer Rachel Morrison, one of the study’s authors, writes at the Conversation:
Although prior researchers have claimed shared work spaces can improve social support, communication and cooperation, our results indicated that co-worker friendships are of the lowest quality in hot-desking and open-plan arrangements, when compared to those with their own offices or who share offices with just one or two others.
The noise inevitable to open offices is a major obstacle to productive focus. Physical barriers also instill a sense of privacy — and a sense of privacy at the office has been shown to boost job performance.
Open offices are bad architecture. They represent a failure in psychology as much as design. In order to understand why the open office is so pervasive despite its obvious downsides, we have to understand the underlying psychology and rationale. Here are the most common arguments in favor of the open office:
Spontaneous Creativity over Focus
- Point: Having people in one large office naturally increases the amount of spontaneous collaboration and creativity.
- Counterpoint: How often are these serendipitous moments actually happening? And even if they are, does your company’s structure allow for them to be utilized effectively? You’re optimizing for a long-tail event at the expense of something every single employee will benefit from — focus.
Busyness as a Proxy for Productivity*
- Point: When everyone is in the same room, people are motivated to work more because other people can see what they’re doing.
- Counterpoint: This is a terrible way to judge performance. Managers who value the physical location of their employees do so because they have no real way or ability to measure output. If you’re judging someone’s value by how busy they appear, good luck getting an accurate reading.
*Lifted from Cal Newport’s Deep Work
- Point: We save money by not having to build everyone their own office.
- Counterpoint: Cool, you’re going to spend a fuck ton of money on talented engineers and designers and then put them in an environment where they’re constantly distracted. Airtight plan.
Open-concept offices also give workers the knowledge that they are constantly being watched, whether passively or actively. They encourage us to look busy and productive.
We look busier, but we’re less efficient, take more sick days, and our communication and happiness suffers. It’s not a smart trade-off.
We should strive to create better environments for meaningful work. Numerous concepts have been proposed, and my favorites include:
Hub and Spoke
Potentially the best of both worlds, hub-and-spoke spaces feature a single entryway into a common space and hallways that spoke out to individual offices. People have the ability to collaborate or to ensconce themselves in their offices. Hub-and-spoke spaces have large, central spaces and hallways that encourage conversation.
MIT’s Building 20 is a famous example of the hub-and-spoke approach. Building 20 was famed for the amount of innovation facilitated within its walls. Some of this has been attributed to the unique structure of the building. The hallways and staircases were the sites of creative collisions, not people sitting with 3 feet of each other.
The Eudaimonia Machine
“Eudaimonia” is the Greek concept that Newport describes as “a state in which you’re achieving your full human potential.” I learned of the “Eudaimonia Machine,” a design concept by architecture professor David Dewane, from Cal Newport’s Deep Work.
In the Eudaimonia Machine, there are five spaces that get progressively more focused on concentrated work. Here is how Newport describes each space in his book, based on an interview with Dewane:
The first room you enter when coming off the street, is called the gallery. In Dewane’s plan, this room would contain examples of deep work produced in the building. It’s meant to inspire users of the machine, creating a ‘culture of healthy stress and peer pressure.’
The salon is designed to create a mood that ‘hovers between intense curiosity and argumentation.’ This is a place to debate, ‘brood,’ and in general work through the ideas that you’ll develop deeper in the machine.
Beyond the salon you enter the library. This room stores a permanent record of all work produced in the machine, as well as the books and other resources used in this previous work.
The next room is the office space. It contains a standard conference room with a whiteboard and some cubicles with desks. ‘The office,’ Dewane explains, ‘is for low-intensity activity.’
This brings us to the final room of the machine, a collection of what Dewane calls ‘deep work chambers.’ … Each chamber is conceived to be six by ten feet and protected by thick soundproof walls. … ‘The purpose of the deep work chamber is to allow for total focus and uninterrupted work flow,’ Dewane explains.
Here’s a more in-depth exploration of the Eudaimonia Machine. I’m a big fan of the concept, although the branding could be a bit more accessible.
The Writer’s Cabin
Perhaps you work at a dogmatic startup or your situation won’t allow you to make any significant adjustments to your workspace. Not being in control of your environment will make it harder to get work done.
You still need to get work done.
Find your equivalent of the writer’s cabin — a place where you can do serious, uninterrupted work. It can be a coffee shop, library, or laundry room in the back of your house. Your “cabin” is any space in which you get work done.
Finding Your Solution
Audit yourself and figure out when you’re most efficient and reaching flow states. Audits are helpful, because we often do things that seem logical, but are actually counterproductive. Looking at the outcomes is a worthy investment of your time.
And ask yourself: Do you really get your best work done in an open office?