The Case for Closing Open Workspaces

The data is now clear, confirming the obvious logic.

Posted Feb 05, 2019

Babak Bagheri, Flickr CC 2.0
Source: Babak Bagheri, Flickr CC 2.0

You wouldn’t think it would take a study, let alone many studies, to convince employers that offices beat cubicles. After all, for time immemorial, the upwardly aspiring employee saw the office, especially the corner office, as the brass ring. And it seems incontrovertible common sense that the noise and lack of privacy in cube farms (which the spinmeisters antiseptically dubbed “open workspaces,”) outweigh the benefits of increased collaboration. After all, even if you’re in a walled office, there’s phone, email, text, and yes, the door.

But convincing employers to build walled offices has taken studies, multiple studies. And many employers still aren’t convinced that good fences make good neighbors. Such employers remain seduced by cubes' low up-front cost plus that it’s easier to spy on employees calling their sweetie or playing on the Internet on company time.

Plus, HR types and egalitarian activists like that workers and bosses are equal, even if suffering equally: "Down with hierarchy, fraternite, egalite, liberte! Off with bosses' heads—or at least their offices.” Or, for ideological balance, a more conservative exhortation: “Tear down those walls!” And even if some offices remain, the symbolism of decreased hierarchy pleases The People and their advocates.

To make their pitch more palatable to the bottom-line oriented suits, activists sold the notion that replacing offices with egalitarianish cube farms promotes collaboration, which will spark bold, fresh, creative ideas—Ah, the synergy of group input. The activists were less likely to mention that collaborative efforts are more costly and time-consuming and often lead to the tepid lowest-common-denominator decisions that everyone on the so-called team can tolerate, while eviscerating the pride of ownership that often drives an individual to work diligently.

The garden-variety worker was seduced to accept cube farms because employers often tossed in start-up-culture sops like a foosball table, allowing flea-free doggies, and a fridge stocked with Red Bull for the morning and craft beer for the late or not-so-late afternoon.

But the studies, they were a comin’.

A University of Sydney study made 42,764 observations at 303 office buildings. For all that cost, they found what I could have told them for free: Private offices had the overall highest satisfaction rate and open workspaces the lowest. The biggest complaint, again no surprise: the noise in open workspaces. More surprising, satisfaction with ease of interaction was no higher in open workspaces than with private offices.

Just a few months ago, a Harvard study reported even more compelling findings face-to-face time decreased by 70 percent in open workspaces. That's because many people crave getting away from all those people. Georgetown professor and author of Deep Work Cal Newport wrote, "To make these numbers concrete: In the 15 days before the companies' office redesign, participants accumulated an average of 5.8 hours of face-to-face interaction per person per day. After the switch to open layout, 1.7 hours. That's an astonishing four hours less collaboration per day.”

And what should be a rude awakening for bean-counting executives, employees at the studied companies reported that their productivity, as defined by their own performance management system, declined after implementing open workspace.

More studies:

A Queensland University study found that working in open workspaces “causes high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and high staff turnover.”

A study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of Indoor Environmental Quality, particularly in acoustics, privacy and proxemics. (Proxemics refers to the amount of space a person needs to feel comfortable.) Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise and decreased privacy.”

Indeed, there's the privacy issue. Everyone needs and wants some, for example, the ability to, heaven forbid, make a personal call on company time. That’s less doable with a coworker in a cube two feet away.

Despite all that, I’m betting that the move to offices will be slow: Employers focus more on cube farms' easy-to-see short-term cost saving than on the longer-term harder-to-pin-down loss of efficiency and employee satisfaction. Also activists like the reality and symbolism of workers and bosses getting the same thing: even if it's a lousy cubicle.

But at some point, when study after study confirms the obvious: less employee satisfaction and productivity because of cube farms' noise and lack of privacy, and that good employees, the ones able to get better jobs, often leave for more halcyon surrounds, the trend to offices or at least cube walls that reach the ceiling, will accelerate and workers—peons and pooh-bahs alike—will be able to hear themselves think. And when they choose to collaborate, they can simply get up, pick up the phone, email, or text. There are myriad ways to communicate without forcing everyone to smell each others’ farts.

I read this aloud on YouTube.