The Open Office Experiment—Driven to Distraction or Creating Collaboration?

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A look back at a 1940s office setting.
Photo courtesy of Amica Insurance.

  
If you were to Google "open office spaces" you’d be bombarded by articles declaring the concept is basically the worst thing ever to happen to corporate America. The biggest knock on open office designs is distracted workers. Apparently, employees are so worked up about open office settings their stress levels go up, their productivity goes down and collaboration with co-workers (the one thing the open design promised to foster) goes out the window.

And apparently, the top workplace distractions involve not just where you work, but who you work with. According to a new poll by Udemy and Toluna, a leading global marketplace for teaching and learning, 80 percent of people report being distracted by chatty coworkers, the number one office place distraction, according to a recent feature from Statista.com.

“Office noise is the second most cited workplace disturbance, with seven out of ten respondents citing noise as a top bother in their day-to-day workflow. Lower on the list, but still a problem, was social media. Half of the people surveyed thought that personal social media use was a disturbance to them at work. The report found that reducing workplace distractions increased workers productivity, motivation, confidence and overall happiness. As open office plans have come into vogue in the modern workplace, new studies have brought into question how effective they are at fostering a collaborative environment as many complain of their distractions and misuse.”



There’s even a scientific explanation delineating why open offices can go so wrong. A recent feature from workfront.com offered this explanation: “About 70 percent of U.S. companies currently adopt some version of the open office (including the use of low-partition and high-partition cubicles), with around 15 to 20 percent adopting a completely open plan (where all desks and computers are set up in rows in a large single room). So what have these researchers found?

“On the whole, the results don’t bode well for the layout. While open offices have been shown to increase informal interactions between employees, be far less expensive (requiring as little as 3x less total office space), and help certain types of teams collaborate more effectively, they carry serious tradeoffs in terms of worker productivity.

“Research from the University of California at Irvine found that employees in cubicles receive 29 percent more interruptions than those in private offices. It added that those who were frequently interrupted report 9 percent higher rates of exhaustion. Finally, a study from the University of Sydney divided results by office type, including enclosed private, cubicles with high partitions, and no partitions. They found dramatic differences when it came to sound privacy, noise level and overall satisfaction.”



Historically, the open office concept is really not all that new. When I started in publishing way back in 1981, I worked in an office with no cubicles or partitions, just 30 to 40 desks arranged in rows. The copydesk where I sat had four desks pushed together in the formation of a square so we could talk back and forth about stories and layouts. No one really complained because at the time, we didn’t know any better.

Fast forward to 2018 when Jobson was purchased by WebMD. In November of this year, we moved from New York City’s Hudson Yards into WebMD’s offices on Hudson Street in the West Village. While the offices are beautiful (we even have a barista to make our coffee every morning) I must admit the open office setting took a bit of getting used to but I think I’ve made peace with the concept and so have a lot of my fellow Jobsonites.

We do sit in areas that have long rows of desks pushed together, so you can definitely tell what your seatmates are having for breakfast and lunch. The idea of putting salespeople (always on the phone) next to editors and writers (writing and editing news stories) is not always a winning combination, but we’ve managed to adjust. One thing that’s very helpful is the plethora of small conference rooms, booths and open common spaces to escape to when we really have to concentrate.

For this story, I reached out to several major optical companies and asked them to talk about the pros and cons of their open office settings. Most of them respectfully declined, leading me to believe it’s a hot topic, and perhaps not in a good way. Thankfully, one company agreed to share their experience with the open office concept. Here’s what Courtney Myers of Red Havas, a media relations company who represents Transitions Optical, had to say about her company's experience with an open office layout:














“Our office is located in Pittsburgh in the cultural district of the city. We have 19 people who work out of this office. We’ve been in this space for two years. The lease was up in our former space. We wanted to move away from our traditional office format to create better use of the space per person and to encourage collaboration. We also wanted more space for teams to meet and work together.

“We have several areas where employees can go to for conference calls and/or peace and quiet—a larger conference room, two smaller working rooms and a lounge area.

“The open environment makes the office feel more personable and collaborative. It can get a bit noisy at times—and it’s easier to get interrupted throughout the day because of the environment—but we also have a few private areas and the option to work from home if true focus time is needed.

“In general, people like the new space. They like that it promotes a more collaborative work environment. One positive takeaway is that it’s very interactive. Rather than sending an email or scheduling a meeting to talk, it’s easier to just strike up a conversation. Or if someone overhears you, they can chime in with information, that can be helpful.

“The open concepts helps with team building and brings people closer together. It encourages interactions with people you don’t normally work with.

“The downside is, that when trying to concentrate and people are talking, that can get distracting. Another downside is personal storage space. With an office or cube, there is much more storage space than with an open office desk.

“Overall, the open concept has worked for us. However, for employees who get very distracted by normal office noises it isn’t ideal. Having more private spaces they feel they can work in for long periods of time would be an improvement.”

Office life, no matter what the layout looks like, can be challenging. But it always helps to keep your sense of humor. For a tongue in cheek look at open office designs, check out this video from YouTube.




Read More About Open Office Settings Here 

Everyone Hates Open Offices. Here’s Why They Still Exist 
First, you tear down the walls and dispense with the soulless cubicles. Then you put everyone at long tables, shoulder to shoulder, so that they can talk more easily. Ditch any remaining private offices, which only enforce the idea that some people are better than others, and seat your most senior employees in the mix. People will collaborate. Ideas will spark. Outsiders will look at your office and think, This place has energy. Your staff will be more productive. Your company will create products unlike any the world has ever seen. That is the myth of the open office, a workplace layout so pervasive that its presence is taken for granted, and its promises–of collaboration and innovation–are sacrosanct. Read more.

Privacy, Please 
Of all the workplace trends that inspire grumbling—like budget cuts that eliminate perks or the pressure to check email after hours—perhaps none generate as much vitriol as “open offices,” those wide-open workspaces with no private offices or cubicles. For many workers, the noise, distractions, and lack of privacy make open offices a modern torture device. And yet open floor plans continue to gain popularity among employers. Read more. 

Why Remote Workers Are Outperforming Office Workers 
Have you seen any of these gimmicky office designs? Candy dispensers in conference rooms. Hammocks and indoor treehouses. Tech companies tend to be the worst offenders with the startup favorites: beer taps and table tennis. Maybe there is fun for a moment when the candy bar drops -- but does all that money spent on gimmicks deliver anything meaningful for the people who work there? I have to wonder why company founders are trying so hard with these in-office "perks." I get that the goal is to create collaboration and fun. But I think this is doing more harm than good. And research shows that the problem is only getting worse. Read more.