The Future of the Open Office Looks Bleak

Since their genesis in the 1950s, open-plan offices have been implemented in 70% of workplaces, replacing the much reviled warren of cubicles mocked and desecrated in Office Space. Open offices are widely considered to be hipper, more forward, facilitating cooperation while looking sleek and shiny; young companies looking towards the future are encouraged to set up aesthetically pleasing offices that do away with pesky things like visible hierarchy and usher in friendship and idea sharing. In a 2015 article about increasing novel idea generation, open office space was a popular suggestion towards fostering creativity and innovation.

The concept, and what it promises, is downright delightful. In execution, however, there’s little to suggest that the open office actually benefits anyone.

In an article published by Fast Company last year, open office spaces looked cool but some employees expressed misgivings.Unfortunately, according to other experts, removing barriers from the workplace contributes to increased distractions, causing a sharp drop in productivity. This would possibly be forgivable if it fostered improvements in other fields, but as reported by Maria Konnikova in the New Yorker, studies on the matter have resoundingly proven this layout is “damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” The lack of privacy in these offices also leads to employees feeling they lack control over their environments in any way, leading to constant, sometimes unwanted, interactions and overstimulation that hurts, rather than aids, the collaboration it is meant to encourage. The constant interruptions in these workplaces also have a broader impact, cumulatively costing the US economy billions each year.

Pfizer is one of the largest companies in the world to have implemented open office space as a requirement.  Touting it as “flex space” and that it would be improve innovation and collaboration, it’s been received with mixed results. General consensus amongst staff is one of negative sentiment.  In a recent article in Fortune Magazine, “The Open Office Concept is Dead,” the concept of flex space does not fare well overall.

Despite these detractions, open offices remain overwhelmingly popular. They look cool, and those who set up shop in them state they feel more innovative and cutting-edge, even if that comes at the cost of productivity and privacy. Nobody wants to go back to a cubicle system; moreover, open-plans are cost effective and easy to alter if a company expands. A middle ground needs to be struck, and small, fairly cheap modifications can make a difference in productivity and privacy. Anthonia Akitunde suggests creating “refuge spaces” employees can retreat to when the shared workspace gets too hectic. These areas must be soundproof, but they only need to fit one or two people and are a small investment with big returns. Separate spaces exclusively for socializing can also keep the workplace productive and cut down on chatter in the office itself. These changes alone can help make an open office liveable, but the workplace trend towards knocking down any and all barriers will need to be addressed before collective productivity falls any lower.

Jeff Degraff, “Dean of Innovation” at UMich is currently running a study on open office spaces, administering a survey to collect data – results are expected later this year.  In a prior, related article, Dr. DeGraff researched and wrote about how to build idea spaces. It will be interesting to read his results of the open office space study and see how they tie-in with idea spaces.


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