An Argument Against the Open Office

A newly recruited employee sits in the center of a sleek, minimalistic, common office space. An overly enthusiastic office manager had informed her that this new open workplace was one of the initiatives taken by the company to increase worker satisfaction and promote a sense of unity within the business. As she takes in her environment, she notices that her co-workers are constantly diverted from their assignments to engage in small talk with their peers. In fact, the general sound of indecipherable chatter seems to envelope the entire space. The common desk itself is littered with phone chargers, small personal mementos, and papers that seemingly belong to no one in particular. In the distance, Nickleback’s 2005 album plays on repeat. She -along with many others – are quickly coming to the conclusion that these ostensibly "modern" and "innovative" office spaces are fraught with drawbacks that have the potential to negatively impact a new generation of workers.

 

The notion of the open office  was created by a team of designers in Hamburg, Germany in the fifties (Source F). This new workplace layout strived to facilitate easy communication between co-workers and build a sense of  camaraderie  in the workplace. However, an overwhelming number of studies have unearthed the true impact of these office spaces. Increased exposure to chatter and uncontrolled conversation have left many workers seeking sanctuary in noise cancelling headphones and rented break rooms (Source B). In addition to this, the loss of employee privacy holds many social implications that have the potential to drastically alter the culture of the white-collar workplace. By stripping worker’s privacy, companies are essentially devaluing their employees, because the open workplace fails to cater to each worker’s individual needs and preferences – accommodations that are easily made by providing a private workspace for each employee (Source B). The open office is detrimental to worker’s productivity and overall satisfaction because of  the increased, uncontrolled noise levels and the confiscation of employee privacy.


Perhaps the most obvious impact of the open office plan is the inevitable rise in noise levels. A multitude of studies have found that excessive noise debilitates an employee’s cognitive performance (Source F). Because of this, employees find themselves struggling to recall information and work at a rapid, productive pace. One employee whose company made the transition from a closed office space to an open workspace plan found himself engaged in “ an ongoing 12 -person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m” (Source B). As a result, he and his twelve colleagues’ productivity levels plunged, leaving them unsatisfied with the new workplace layout.


However, this only serves to present the short term impacts. In the long term, increased noise levels in the workplace have been linked to stress, fatigue, headaches, and a general feeling of a loss of control (Source D).  When employees are forced to work under the constant noise and commotion of the common workplace, it directly affects their health and well- being. The common counter to this argument is that the open workplace is meant to cater to an evolving generation of young workers who are willing to sacrifice privacy for increased interaction with their colleagues  (Source A). Some go as far to say that young people simply do not experience the stress and fatigue most face as a result of added noise in the workplace. Alas, the argument that millennials are are somehow immune to the adverse effects of the open office fails to hold up when contradicted by fact. This is best illustrated by a study in 2012 that  examined how younger workers adapted to an unfamiliar open office space and found that they were just as sidetracked and inconvenienced as their older associates (Source A). If companies continue to implement these office space designs, they will have to contend with the fact that are employing a class of distracted, stressed, less productive workers.

The second, more obscure impact of the open office space is the effect it will have on the culture of white-collar society. Most research has defined “noise and lack of privacy as the key sources of dissatisfaction” (Source D). While the effects of noise are easy to analyze, looking into the implications of  stripping worker privacy is a much more abstract discussion. Supporters of the open office layout are quick to point to the dismantling of workplace hierarchies and the smooth flow of ideas through  different levels management (Source A). However, according to research  “there is not much empirical evidence to support these widespread beliefs” (Source D). In fact, it has become  apparent that the equalizing effect the open office has on employee culture is merely a “mask” adherents hide behind to conceal the layout’s true detrimental  effects. The theory that the open office equalizes employees is exactly that – an assumption with no practical evidence behind it  (Source D). The main reason why the open office fails is because it assumes that all workers function in the same way, and can therefore productively coexist in the same environment. In actuality, companies employ workers equipped with a vast range of expertise and preferences – all of which  are disregarded by the common office. The best way for companies to show that their employees are valued is by providing each one with a private, tranquil space in which they can thrive.


By far, the most compelling argument adherents of the open office are able to defend  is the the forming of friendships between co-workers. While this argument may be riveting to some, it certainly does not hold enough weight to invalidate the benefits of the closed office space. In fact, many firsthand testimonies cite newfound closeness with their co- workers as a  reason for barriers within the workplace (Source B). Truly, this effect is quite understandable. Workers in the common office are in the constant, inescapable company of their cohorts. Because of this, many find that they are under constant scrutiny by those around them and miss the visual privacy of a closed workplace (Source B). By promoting the open office space, companies are fostering a culture where employees seek freedom from disturbance in noise canceling headphones and rented conference rooms. To look at this from a practical standpoint, employees should not be responsible for creating their own private, productive environment when one should have been provided for them.

 

Ultimately, while the prospect of new bonds and friendships may be appealing to some, those who have worked in an open office are quick to point out that, the majority of the time, the common office has the opposite effect on workplace relationships.


The open office space is undoubtedly detrimental to worker productivity because of the adverse effects of uncontrolled noise and the stripping of worker privacy.  Before major companies get swept up in the novelty of the open office plan, they should seriously consider the impact the transition will have on their employees’ well-being. By doing this, they will ensure that they are employing a class of productive, satisfied workers equipped with the tools needed to positively advance both themselves and the company as a whole.

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