Cubicles Must Die
Cubicles get a bad rap. At worst, they’re considered little more than white-collar cattle stalls. Open offices were supposed to cure the evils of cubicles, which might be why almost 70% of American employees now work in open-concept offices . In a sign of the times, Facebook is currently planning a truly massive open office. Designed by Frank Gehry, the campus-inspired space will fit 2800 engineers in single room.
Unfortunately, open offices aren’t all they’re cracked up to be . They hurt our productivity, our job satisfaction and even our health. Whether it’s a coworker whose uncovered coughing levels a whole department during cold season or a pernicious uneasiness and lack of comfort that comes from the inability to personalize a dedicated space with your own tchotchkes, here’s why open concept offices are better in theory than in practice.
Open offices don’t scale
Five people without walls between them works, bump that number to 75 or 150 and it doesn’t, unless everyone is engaged in the same routine desk-bound work like telemarketing or providing customer service support. As soon as you have functional groups or departments with different work processes, interaction requirements and environmental needs, someone is bound to get the short end of the stick. How likely is it your QA engineers can do their best work planted right next to your sales team who are all striving to make their monthly quota of outbound calls? In the case of the QA engineers who are forced to block out sales patter to focus on reviewing code, their performance may actually suffer as a result of attempting to ignore their stimulation-filled surroundings.
They’re an introvert’s nightmare
Need uninterrupted quiet and lots of alone time in order to work well? Odds are you’ll wilt like a hothouse flower in an open office. Sure you can put your headphones on, but at the risk of appearing anti-social and alienating your colleagues. Earlier this year, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts In a World That Can’t Stop Talking teamed up with Steelcase to design office privacy pods to allow introverts to have their space in a workplace without walls. While the modular office pods look cool, they’re pricey and I’m not sure how many introverts relish the spectacle involved in retreating into a big glass cube planted in the middle of the office. And, as a Digiday piece notes, these spaces are never really “yours” in the same way a dedicated private office is. Better to offer employees the ability to tailor their schedules to coincide with the time of day they’re most productive (maybe introverts opt to come in early or stay late to minimize distractions) or permit remote working arrangements.
Reduced privacy inhibits creativity and productivity
The chief complaints of workers who toil in an open office environment are the lack of visual and sound privacy afforded them in this layout. With square footage allocated by companies per employee shrinking rapidly, relative workplace privacy disappears along with it and a lack of privacy has particular consequences for employees’ sense of autonomy. Think of Bentham’s Panopticon prison design, which was meant to force inmates to self regulate their behavior. Unable to tell if they were being observed or not, the layout of their surroundings would lead them to assume they were being watched at all times and act accordingly.
While it might be too harsh to call the modern open office a panoptic structure (at least not one explicitly constructed for surveillance and discipline), the reality is that open office employees will police their behavior because they know colleagues and managers are possibly watching. On the positive side, this might mean being more diligent about arriving on time in the morning and not taking personal calls at work, but on the negative side, you’re probably also less likely to engage in creativity-stimulating brain breaks (staring into the middle distance for a few minutes, playing a quick game of Candy Crush, doing some stretches at your desk) that make you look as if you’re slacking and not being ‘productive’ to those around you. And speaking of productivity, it turns out that privacy encourages it and forced communal working hurts it. As Susan Cain writes in a NYT op-ed piece entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink:
“In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed.”
So, the next time your client wants to move into an open an open floor plan and stack cubicles from wall to wall…point them in a direction that will be sustainable long-term.