In a recent New Yorker article, Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to think Like Sherlock Holmes, claimed that “a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.”
What was it designed to achieve? The belief was that open offices would “facilitate communication and idea flow.” Nearly seventy percent of all offices are now open.
Konnikova referenced studies from about a dozen renowned psychologists, all suggesting that’s not the case. She also referred to a study conducted by Mahbub Rashid from the University of Kansas and Craig Zimring from the Georgia Institute of Technology that concluded noise and cognitive performance are negatively correlated.
Her article resonated with me because I’ve worked in two open offices and found them to be extremely distracting. I understand the reasoning behind an open office and think that with the right group of people, there might be some benefits. Unfortunately, I haven’t experienced those benefits. In my open office experiences, I’ve seen no increase in collaboration or the valuable free flow of thoughts. It does increase communication, but not in the way it was intended. Instead, it increases chatter. An open office also inevitably results in a lack of privacy. It’s difficult to make an important phone call or really hone in on your work when people on all sides of you are discussing their weekend plans or laughing at BuzzFeed articles. Everyone has annoying tendencies, some more than others, and in an open office you quickly become familiar with what they are. It can lead to resentment and passive aggressiveness, neither of which help build a healthy culture.
I imagine that an open office would work best for a business in which everyone involved has an incentive to grow it, such as startup. In a small environment with a truly focused group working toward the same goal, it could work. That description certainly does not fit seventy percent of all businesses.
I’d like to hear your thoughts. Have you worked in an open office and seen an increase in productivity and collaboration? What do you think the advantages and disadvantages are?
Sidenote: That’s not me in the picture, but it does capture how I felt at times.