Myth: Open offices result in massive collaboration.
Reality: 2 people loudly collaborate; 30 must wear headphones to get any work done.
— Jochen Wolters (@jochenWolters) April 7, 2016
Personally, I love open plan offices. Granted, I don’t actually work in one with any regularity, but I enjoy them immensely when I have occasion to park for a few hours at a client site. It’s sort of like going to the gym, but without the sweating. Actually, I’d say, it’s more like going to a bar (more on that later).
I’m a type A introvert, and I work predominantly from home (or a hotel wherever I happen to be, since I travel a lot). This means that it’s not uncommon for me to get swept up in my work and log 10+ hour stints of heavy concentration. For instance, I recently wrote an E-Book for a client in two days. It’s like I go into a sensory deprivation chamber and I get things done, delivering code, write-ups, posts, or whatever to clients on or ahead of schedule.
But following a productivity ‘binge’ like that, there are typically human connection things that have to happen. I travel to a client site to present something in person or I get on a series of conference calls to collaborate. It is in these situations that hyper-productivity ends and human connection begins in the meatspace. Consulting requires more than just output—it requires relationship management.
More and more these days, when I pull that part of a tour of duty, it happens in an open plan office, simply because there are more and more open office plans. Even clients that don’t have them now talk sheepishly about how they should. For me, fresh off a week or two of minimal human interaction and intense productivity, I fly somewhere and meet with people for a couple of days, wherein the goal is mainly relationship forging. In this capacity I’m greeted by someone who proudly demonstrates the egalitarian nature of the office space and ushers me to a high top or to a focus room or whatever they’re calling it.
At this point, it’s as if I were in a college Starbucks that served a single company. Some patrons are sitting alone, studying glowing screens, while others gather in impromptu circles, having animated discussions. There’s the occasional jerk making lots of noise and distracting everyone and the occasional good-natured hijinks in the form or Nerf guns or whatever. The result is a Dionysian experience to my Appolonian, introverted sensibilities. I wouldn’t want to try to get serious, thought-intensive work done in such a place (if I needed to do that, I’d obviously leave), but it’s a nice way to obtain social camaraderie without much pressure.
Lack of Value
Clearly, there’s something amiss here. Not having given the matter much conscious thought, I’m just now discovering that my take on open office plans is, “that’s fun and refreshing in limited doses, as long as I can retreat somewhere to get serious work done.” And that’s fine for me, because I largely control my own working conditions. But what about people with a similar mindset to mine, but who are employed by these companies and thus forced into Discovery Zone-Starbucks 40 hours per week? Presumably these people exist, if the popularity of the tweet above is any indication.
For people in this situation, the novelty of human connection must wear off and give way to maddening peccadilloes — the guy next to them clearing his throat every five minutes or the woman three seats down that eats a weird-smelling lunch every day. After a day, this is annoying. After a week, it’s infuriating. After a month or a year, sadly, it’s just your life and you’re used to it.
As the tweet suggests, and as apparent studies indicate, even if this is good for morale (e.g. mine), it is bad for productivity.
Though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee,
You have a legion of employees that feel more connected and more tightly bonded, but that also feel as though they don’t get much done. The open office plan encourages exchanging value for feels. That should seem crazy in a world where organizations are trying to maximize profit.
And, yet, it doesn’t. At least, it doesn’t seem crazy to me. I’ve talked in past posts about how the value provided by any individual employee in an organization is virtually unknowable for sufficiently large organizations (and this is probably on the order of dozens of humans, not thousands). To me, it then makes perfect sense that companies would willingly sacrifice individual satisfaction and productivity at the altar of “easy collaboration and communication.”
Companies like open office plans for the same reason that companies can’t kick the habit of too many meetings. Both are vehicles for blurring the line between activity and productivity. A lot of people are meeting, talking, exchanging ideas, being passionate, and shooting one another with squirt guns. That’s got to be productive, right? Right?!
I think it’d actually be really interesting to consider a philosophical question (and even to measure it if possible). Do open office plans sublimate individual productivity into some kind of gestalt of group success? Is it possible that every group member is slightly less productive, but that the entire group is actually more productive, after accounting for the ‘collisions’ that happen in open settings (or whatever)? Or, to put it another way, are they scratching some kind of organizational itch?
I’ll close out by offering what is probably an unusual take on the matter. I’d say that open plans are, indeed, scratching an itch — one that has been unscratched for a while in the corporate world. They’re standing in for the 3 martini lunch. The world has moved away from alcohol being such a pervasive part of a work day, but the extrovert ideal still runs strong, so something has to serve as social lubrication.
I’ve never seen the show “Mad Men,” but I understand that it paints a hard-drinking picture of the business world from 50 or 60 years ago. The 3 martini lunch was definitely a thing in the 50s, but it lasted up until the late 70s or early 80s. To be clear, 30+ years ago, it was perfectly normal in the US for office workers to leave their quiet offices and cubicles, dressed in suits with skinny ties, and to get bombed at lunch. They’d go out at noon, eat and drink for an hour or two, and return to work, having consumed the equivalent of a six pack of beer.
Was this good for productivity? I cannot possibly imagine that it was. But, did it have some kind of gestalt property—some kind of social lubrication—that lowered barriers to communication, fostered camaraderie, and lent a certain je ne sais quoi to the corporate experience? I don’t know the answer to that either. But I bet that an entire generation of office workers, nursing slight headaches at 3 PM, would have told you that it did. Just as I bet our generation pulls off their noise-canceling headphones, and tells you that it’s awesome working at gigantic tables reminiscent of 1890’s factories.
You do have to wonder, though, if Twitter had been around 30-40 years ago, might someone have tweeted:
Myth: 3 martini lunches result in camaraderie.
Reality: 2 bond then puke loudly; 30 shut office doors to get any work done.