New Study Says Open-Plan Offices Are Bad (Duh?)

Shocking? Not really. Here’s why the latest wave of open-office criticism is more of the same.

The open-plan office is the new(ish) norm for workplace design. From Silicon Valley, where laptop-strapped workers are huddled into “zones,” to New York and beyond, the open plan and all its iterations tempt with their promises of greater transparency, communication, and collaboration. But the anti open-plan backlash has begun. A few weeks ago our friends at Fast Co. posted an amusing and perceptive rant by Jason Feife, complaining about open offices in general, and his in particular. Feife pined, most mournfully, for a closeable door. Earlier this week the Guardian chimed in with a post absurdly titled, “Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell,” which seems a bit overwrought, unless you’re working definition of Satan references a “facilities manager.” The author here, Oliver Burkeman, more or less lumps together open-plan offices and cubicles, and then cites the glaringly obvious: they lack privacy. (To which, a devilish facilities manager might reply, “Whoever said you were entitled to privacy? You’re lucky to have to job in this crappy economy.”)

None of this is exactly news, as criticisms of the open-plan are legion. But Burkeman’s predictable diatribe was backed up by a new Harvard study that reached some fairly unhealthy conclusions about open-plan offices. The study, by researchers Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear, found that of the 42,700 office workers surveyed, nearly half of those in completely open-plan offices (sans partitions) complained about environmental noise levels. Even more surprising, cubicle workers—distinguished between those in offices with low and high partitions—were more greatly disatisfied with the noise around their workstations.

So, what gives? I’m old enough to have worked in just about every office permutation ever championed in the past three decades: the traditional layout, the cubicle farm, the bullpen. Now, I work remotely from a messy desk, fourteen hundred miles from HQ. The truth is, architecture can’t keep up with the changes in the workplace. The whole idea of The Office is under assault—by tools that allow us to work anywhere, smart machines that threaten to make us “redundant,” and, lurking in the shadows, a perpetually squeezed economy. It’s no surprise that a lot of design responses, like the open-plan office itself, are best guesses, driven in part by real estate expediencies. Andrew Blum’s wonderful essay on the Workplace of the Future explores these uncertainties with a deft touch. In it, Blum explores three future workplace designs, including one set on a high-speed train. If futurism isn’t your bag, have a look at Paul Makovsky’s tips on how to soundproof your own open office.

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Photo courtesy Flickr User J Dee

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