Background noises, a dozen conversations, and coworkers gnashing on their lunch. The ring of someone’s phone every couple of minutes, an impromptu meeting being carried out that has nothing to do with me, and someone is talking louder and louder as they try to be heard. Someone tells a joke and now we have a really loud laugher, it covers some of the other sounds up, but does nothing about the smell of Bob farting silently at his desk.
I telecommute now, but that is how I remember my experience with the open office environment. It was not very work friendly, and some days it just exacerbated the struggle with complex programming related issues.
I explained some of the issues I had with open offices in the post “Osmotic Communication: Flawed Communication practices” Here I want to explain more how detrimental open offices are to the workplace and employees.
Open Offices Actually Reduce Collaboration
Collaboration is a good thing, but I don’t need to collaborate for my entire day – which seems to be the goal behind open offices. There are times when I have to perform my portion of work and it doesn’t actually involve anyone else. Anyway, open offices have actually been shown to cause a decrease in collaboration and apparently, it makes the entire group collectively dumber.
“… some organizational scholars, especially social psychologists and environmental psychologists, have shown that removing spatial boundaries can decrease collaboration and collective intelligence.” – Bernstein, E. and Turban S. (2018)
The quote from the above came from research into a study where participants wore a device to track their conversations, movements, and other information in a more closed office environment. This was done before the office was redesigned to be more open. After the redesign, participants wore the device again.
The two datasets were compared (Bernstein, E. and Turban S., 2018):
- Participants spent 72% less time physically interacting with each other in the open office environment compared to the more closed off environment
- Closed Office: 5,266 minutes of interaction over 15 days
- Open Office: 1,492 minutes of interaction over 15 days
- 56% more emails were sent
- 41% increase in cc’d emails
- Instant messages increased by 67%
- 75% more words were used in IMs
The above study noted that there was a measurable decline in productivity. It didn’t go into the specifics, it just mentioned that the company reported it based on their own indicators. The open office environment was also shown to reduce a person’s ability to concentrate, thus reducing the amount of actual meaningful discussions. Additionally, there was a rise of indifference towards coworkers and their work, it caused employees to become more detached from their work – they cared less.
As people become more comfortable with the environmental change, I suspect there will be more meaningless interactions and an increase in the background noise; at least that has been my experience with them – and you do seem to get a lot of instant messaging of people a couple of seats down from you too. I don’t think that ever goes away unless you take the IM ability from them.
Lack of Focus on Individual Work
I always kind of laugh when I see a job ad boasting about their collaborative open office environment or their co-located Agile team. They may say things like “We work as a team!” and then they discuss their open office like it’s a benefit of being employed there. You can work as a team and not be sitting on each other’s laps.
Gallups 2013 “State of the Global Workplace” states that 13% of respondents were satisfied with their work situation (of any type of office/location). Among the most engaged of all workers surveyed were those who get to do some telecommuting (Steelcase, N.D.). It sounds like people prefer not to go into an office.
A Steelcase study found that insufficient privacy was an issue in workplaces around the world. It turns out that employees like to be able to concentrate on their job and be able to work without constant interruptions (Steelcase N.D.). Employees dislike being in an environment that has too much going on and open offices tend to be an environment with a lot going on; like everybody else struggling to complete their work, loud and unrelated conversations, and of course Bob passing gas at his desk.
“Office workers are interrupted as often as every three minutes by digital and human distractions. These breaches in attention carry a destructive ripple effect because, once a distraction occurs, it can take as much as 23 minutes for the mind to return to the task at hand, according to recent research done at the University of California.” – (Steelcase, N.D.)
It is hard to relax and focus on your work when the environment around you is busy with people moving back and forth; you might as well be sitting in the middle of Times Square on the Saturday night of Fleet Week doing your work. What you sometimes require is a little bit of privacy, a chance to step away and focus on your work obligations.
Who really wants their boss and everyone else staring at them when they get up to use the bathroom; I know I used it 3 hours ago, but I need it again because of all the coffee I drink to make sitting in an open office bearable.
Then everybody stops by to tell me good morning, good afternoon, or asking me for an update on something I intended to cover in a meeting later – it causes me to lose focus on my work. I know you are trying to be nice, but the 20 people before you every 5 minutes doing the same thing is making my actual work difficult to accomplish.
Books on Managing Virtual/Remote Team
- Influencing Virtual Teams: 17 Tactics That Get Things Done with Your Remote Employees
- Remote: Office Not Required
- Managing the Telecommuting Employee: Set Goals, Monitor Progress, and Maximize Profit and Productivity
What is needed is the ability to have privacy to focus on their individual work. You may be a team, but each team member has their own individual tasks to complete. We do not have to be shoved into a state of constant collaboration to be effective. We can still be a team and not share each other’s exhaled breath every second of the day.
According to the Steelcase research, a private space that eliminates a lot of those issues should consist of 4 things:
- Acoustical privacy: You shouldn’t be able to hear others and others shouldn’t be able to hear you
- Visual Privacy: A space that removes you from the sight of others and removes visual distractions
- Territorial Privacy: Having control over a space that is your own
- Informational Privacy: Keeping content and conversations confidential
Open offices do none of that. Cubicles don’t do that.
My own thoughts on this, I don’t like people standing over my shoulders when I read a book at home. In an open office, it feels like people are constantly behind you, near you, or next to you. You start to believe the managers just don’t trust the employees, the employees return that lack of trust with reduced productivity. And I have had a manager that I swear was keeping track of who used the bathroom and how often they used it; the stopwatch he carried around with him every day was a pretty big clue he was timing something.
I’ve only scratched the surface with problems related to the open office environment. I didn’t cover the increase in reported illnesses and sick days, the rise it tends to cause in employee turnover, as well as several other issues related to this office layout choice. I really believe that when it comes to choosing an open office, that choice should be reconsidered.
Images from pexels.com or pixabay.com except those that are specifically cited
Bernstein, E. and Turban S. (2018). “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration” Retrieved from: http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/373/1753/20170239
Steelcase (N.D.). “The Privacy Crisis: Taking a Toll on Employee Engagement” Retrieved from: https://www.steelcase.com/research/articles/privacy-crisis/
Gallup. (2013). “State of the Global Workplace” Available from: https://www.gallup.com/services/178517/state-global-workplace.aspx