Want to Reduce Productivity? Go to an Open Office Environment

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Count me in as one of those who believes the “open” office environment makes it a lot harder to get any real work done.

I know that lots of people like to trumpet the benefits of a wall-less, collaborative workspace, and I’ve worked in a number of them, but all I  found is that they’re noisy, distracting, and impossible to easily have a private phone call in.

The New York Times finally dug into this issue last week, and the story cut to the heart of the problem with an open workspace:

Scientists, for their part, are measuring the unhappiness and the lower productivity of distracted workers. After surveying 65,000 people over the past decade in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, report that more than half of office workers are dissatisfied with the level of “speech privacy,” making it the leading complaint in offices everywhere.

In general, people do not like the acoustics in open offices,” said John Goins, the leader of the survey conducted by Berkeley’s Center for the Built Environment. “The noisemakers aren’t so bothered by the lack of privacy, but most people are not happy, and designers are finally starting to pay attention to the problem.”

A loss of privacy

As the story notes, the rationale for the open office environment was threefold: saving space, saving money, and most importantly, to foster more communication among workers so that they would (hopefully) collaborate and innovate a lot more.

However, there was an unintended consequence to this plan, as the Times notes: “It turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor.”

Yes, that’s a feeling I can identify with.

My first encounter with the open office came at a dotcom in San Francisco during the 1999-2000 Internet boom. We had open office with a lot of cubes, but not everyone even had that. The notion was that this was very egalitarian, open, and led to more collaboration, and it did, but there was also a cost component to the decision to go this way as well.

Our first office was in an old warehouse and former manufacturing plant of some sort, and given our early-stage business development, building out a proper office with lots of private spaces for individuals was cost-prohibitive. Plus, we were hiring and growing pretty rapidly, so it didn’t make sense to build out something that would need to constantly be changed as new employees came on board.

The need to make a private phone call

Yes, the open office worked in that situation — for the most part — but there was still the problem of having to scramble every time you were trying to cut a deal and needed a place to make a private phone call.

Flash forward about five years and I was working in another office well out of the dotcom space where, for some odd reason, private offices were banned except for the very highest executives. It didn’t matter if your job frequently depended on you cutting deals and making phone calls that really needed to be done in private — you got a cube just like everyone else.

Besides the fact that this was just plain arbitrary and dumb, it led to situations where people forgot they were in an open office and tried to make phone calls that were best done privately. Sometimes, this was just flat out embarassing.

There also weren’t enough conference rooms or spaces where one could use for that private phone call, and it led to situations where you had someone call you that you then had to transfer from your cube to a private office. Guess how many calls got lost in that never-ending shuffle?

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Worst of all, one guy for some reason got a private office despite the fact that he didn’t fit the corporate profile for one. Making matter worse, he decided that his office walls were too thin and that he simply couldn’t have a private phone call in there.

So, he ended up (frequently) hogging one of the few joint conference rooms, to the chagrin of everyone else working around him who didn’t have a closed-door office like he did and had to fight with him to get access to the joint-use space. The only real collaboration that went on there was among the people wanting to throttle him.

“Fewer meaningful conversations”

The New York Times story makes a similar point:

Many studies show that people have shorter and more superficial conversations in open offices because they’re self-conscious about being overheard,” said Anne-Laure Fayard, a professor of management at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University who has studied open offices. “Everyone is still experimenting with ways to balance the need for collaboration and the need for privacy. …

You talk to more people in an open office, but I think you have fewer meaningful conversations,” said Jonathan McClelland, an energy consultant … “You end up getting interrupted a lot by people’s random thoughts.”

Yes, I appreciate the collaborative aspects of open offices, but the one size-fits-all approach like the one my former employer came up with fails to recognize a big fault with the open office philosophy: not everyone has the same job, the same needs, or even works the same.

Productivity may take a hit

When you plug a person who really needs a closed-door office into an open environment, do you know what you get? A person who is a lot less productive because they have been dropped into a space not particularly conductive to operating efficiently.

Yes, open offices can be great, but in my experience, they can also reduce productivity and make for noisy workspaces where everyone is hungering for a little privacy now and then.

Add in a host of HR issues that flow out of trying to manage this kind of office space, and what you get is trendy workplace design that needs to be tempered by a little workplace reality.

Open offices? You can have them as far as I’m concerned. They’re just a lot more trouble than they’re worth.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.