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The Open Office Myth

Cornerstone Editors

When you think about positive workplace culture, you often think about open offices and impressive perks. People playing ping-pong next to groups collaborating at large tables has become the picture of a creative, high-performing office today. While the open office concept seems cool, modern and hip, some research suggests that it inhibits productivity and personal comfort. When it comes to the office space, does cool factor outweigh output?

What's Behind the Hype?

According to the International Facility Management Association, some 70 percent of U.S. offices today have embraced the open office design. So what’s all the fuss about? Is it actually better for workers to be out in the open with one another? Well, as the practice is still relatively new (the idea was introduced in Europe a little over 50 years ago and made its way to the U.S. shortly thereafter), it’s hard to say for sure which option is better.

While the open office may be the flavor of the moment, hype may not be the best indicator. Just because the media is championing it, doesn’t mean it’s the best fit for company culture. This is true, for example, of the negative hype around caffeine: after years of coffee bashing, some scientists suggest it’s actually a good tool for long-term information retention.

Here are some common conceptions about the open office and competing arguments in favor of a more traditionally structured office:

  1. The noise of an open office helps boost productivity and encourages creativity: The whole idea that the drone of a busy coffee shop can actually stimulate creativity has inspired offices to adopt similar thinking. Of course, when employees can’t shut themselves away in their offices they are, it stands to reason, more apt to connect and collaborate. Conversely, though, Scientific American reports that ambient noise can actually increase stress levels and can activate other stress-related health problems such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol. For companies that dedicate themselves to a holistic culture, this may be reason enough to rethink open design.

  1. An open office boosts company transparency and enhances collaboration: As most Millennial workers report craving mentorship at work, an open office is rife with opportunity to allow these relationships to grow organically. Rather than assign a superior, for example, a new hire can take advantage of an open office to approach even the most senior team member who may be sitting nearby. Younger employees also have the opportunity to see how their mentors work, as they aren’t hiding behind closed doors. This lack of privacy for all workers can also be seen as a negative, though. The inability to close one’s door, as it were, can have great psychological ramifications, according to a 1980 study released in the Academy of Management Journal. The ability to maintain personal space, the study found, gave workers greater sense of satisfaction and higher job performance, the study found.

  1. Conversations become easier in open offices and cut down on unnecessary e-mail exchanges: While the lack of one-line, inconsequential e-mails between colleagues may result from the open office, being out in the open also invites disruptive conversation. We know multi-tasking is a skill very few of us possess, yet open-offices almost require it. Research shows that these out-in-the-open conversations actually tend to be superficial and less meaningful because everyone is listening. If you want to have a private meeting, you now have to seek a safe spot to have the conversation. So, are important conversations even happening — and, if not, isn’t this the antithesis of what the open office utopia is all about?

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