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Out in the Open

The good, bad and ugly of open-space offices

Back Article Sep 6, 2019 By Jessica Kriegel

The idea of open-space offices has been with us since the start of the tech revolution. It seems we are under the mistaken belief that the early technology companies — such as Google, Wikipedia, eBay — were onto something when they tore down office walls, removed cubicles and allowed workers to float in a sea of open access. Teamwork became the goal. But as workers gained access to everyone and everything, what did they lose?

Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas and author of the book “Bring Your Brain to Work,” says the modern open-office environment is kind of a disaster. He maintains that it is very hard to concentrate in an open office area. “What the modern office has done in an attempt to promote collaboration has really been to promote distraction,” Markman says in “The Why Factor” podcast for BBC.

Unavoidable distractions — such as listening to a neighbor’s “half-a-logue” (half of a phone conversation, which is harder for many to ignore than a full dialogue) or the sudden distraction when a neighbor pops up and looks over the cubicle wall  (whimsically called “prairie-dogging”) — compete with our ability to focus on the task at hand.

For a 2018 study, “The Impact of the ‘Open’ Workspace on Human Collaboration,” two researchers from Harvard Business School studied two Fortune 500 companies that had recently adopted an open floor plan. They found that face-to-face interactions subsequently dropped by 70 percent. Employees simply emailed and instant messaged each other more — 56 percent more — in an effort to turn down the volume and reclaim a sense of lost privacy.

Kerstin Sailor from the Bartlett School of Architecture in London studied the effect of spatial design on people and social behaviors. She points out that just because corner power offices disappear does not mean the power does. Power becomes less about offices and more about surveillance — seeing and being seen. As a result, workers become less creative and less productive and more focused on seeing and being seen.

Unavoidable distractions — such as listening to a neighbor’s “half-a-logue” (half of a phone conversation, which is harder for many to ignore than a full dialogue) or the sudden distraction when a neighbor pops up and looks over the cubicle wall (whimsically called “prairie-dogging”) — compete with our ability to focus on the task at hand.

In the beginning, the open-space office was designed to foster “collaboration.” The assumption was that collaboration would lead to new and creative ideas. Wouldn’t two heads — or three or 10 or 20 — be better than one? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. With more ears listening in, the depth of discussion changed between colleagues. Conversations became more surface level. That leads to a reduction in trust and, ironically, less proactive collaboration at work.

To foster the team’s best effort there must be some pressure put on each employee to think for themselves and to contribute freely. But that doesn’t always happen, according to John Maeda, the global head of computational design and inclusion for Automattic, best known as the creator of WordPress.com. In any group-think situation, Maeda says on the BBC podcast, there are some who simply sit back. These are the so-called “free riders” who let others speak first. A more polite term might be “introverts.” 

Then there are the people who tend to speak up first and loudly. They are the extroverts, the narcissists and the people in power. There’s nothing wrong with that; sometimes even narcissists have good ideas. But because they speak first, they sway the discussion and set unconscious parameters the free riders follow. The problem is that up to 50 percent of the population are introverts, according to Susan Cain, the author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” And they’re not given the space and time to process, then share, in the fast-paced corporate environment. 

In an open-space office, introverts often are silenced or diminished, when the goal is to encourage inclusivity and creativity. Think of the geniuses — such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Wolfgang Mozart, Virginia Woolf and Albert Einstein — who thrive on privacy and focused time alone in their study, at their pianos, or in their solitary, metaphorical world. Think, too, of the half of the population who are not being supported and encouraged. Then try to think how best to harness their power and give them the time, silence and opportunity to contribute to a congenial workplace environment.

One solution is more flexibility for employees to work from home, a coffee shop, the doctor’s office, the park or even their car. Working from home has now become workplacelessness. Given the distractions at home, more and more virtual employees are finding other places to get their work done. I sit in McKinley Park in East Sacramento as I write these words. Corporate America is now starting to embrace that people don’t necessarily go to work, they just start to do the work.

True collaboration is not achieved by throwing everyone in a room and seeing what develops. There is an art to it, and time and effort needs to be invested to do it well. And sometimes the best thing for collaboration is solitude for processing and preparation.

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