Are Open-Plan Offices Good or Bad for Workplace Culture?

Why bosses do the things they do.
May 4 2014 9:20 PM

The Boss With No Office

Is it good for workplace culture when management sits with employees?

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140502_PSYMGMT_Bloomberg_salesfloor
A Bloomberg floor (minus the people).

Photo courtesy Bloomberg

The purpose of all this engineered mingling? It encourages something that a Bloomberg spokesperson terms “institutional eavesdropping.” Employees get a sense of what’s going on in every part of the company—almost through osmosis. As Michael Bloomberg puts it in his book, workers “absorb information peripherally while focusing elsewhere.” And this fuller understanding of corporate doings seems to quell office paranoia. “Openness also constantly puts [employees] in front of their peers,” Bloomberg writes, “preventing childish fantasies that coworkers are out to get them.” (In case you’re wondering: The big man himself, when at the office, sits at an open desk on the fifth floor.)

“In a deadline business, where every bit of missed communication can have an impact on the final product,” says Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, “open plan is pretty spectacular. It ensures that everyone is attuned to the broad mission, and … it encourages curiosity between people who work in different disciplines. So the art department and staff writers—who at most magazines are separated like lemurs and rhinos—end up mixing and lingering whenever they spot something of interest.”

“Most of the startups Bloomberg Beta invests in and works with have an open plan,” says Karin Klein, a partner at Beta, a Bloomberg venture fund that invests in early stage technology companies. “Interestingly, many startup founders, when they come to visit us, feel right at home. They are impressed with Bloomberg’s scale and ability to retain the openness and energy of a startup. And everything at Bloomberg is designed to keep that spirit.”

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Of course, there are drawbacks to working in an open-plan office. Some employees may find it harder to concentrate when in close proximity to others’ chatter and phone conversations, and with no barriers to sudden visits from annoying, time-wasting colleagues. “People must develop the ability to concentrate,” writes Bloomberg, “despite myriad distractions.” Tyrangiel feels this isn’t an insurmountable challenge. “It’s surprising how fast people are able to tune out the incidental noise,” he says. “The only real downside is that some people have terrible taste in music.”

Some of the benefits of the open plan may be mildly oversold. For instance, that vaunted facilitation of spontaneous mingling. “Research shows,” according to an article in Time, “that while conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial—precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen.” Sure, closed doors can foster mystery and paranoia, but they also enable sharing the juiciest gossip and the most forthright opinions. And indeed, even Bloomberg employees are known to seek out hidden corners away from prying ears and eyes when they need a bit of privacy. A Bloomberg spokesman swears the ubiquitous fish tanks around the office are merely an inducement to visual relaxation, but they might equally serve as a metaphor for the panopticonic aspects of the open plan scheme.

Why is the open plan so hot these days? As Klein notes, startup culture favors stripped down office spaces—partly because there’s only so much room to fit card tables in the proverbial Silicon Valley garage, and partly because startups grow and shrink at rapid speed, and flexibility is a must. Startups have cachet in today’s business world, so there’s a bit of a cool factor that comes into play when larger companies emulate the startup aesthetic.

But startups also run lean to cut costs. And one could argue that the true purpose of the open plan office is far more pedestrian than Michael Bloomberg suggests: It’s a terrific means of squeezing many more desks into much less space—and thus, saving money. The recent book Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace, by Nikil Saval, suggests that every idealistically-minded office space innovation ultimately becomes another tool of economization: “[Companies] wanted to stuff as many people in as small a space for as cheaply as possible as quickly as possible.”

Still, the utopian appeal of the open plan—its ability to mold office culture—remains a siren call that entrepreneurs find hard to resist. Consider Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos, who seems bent on turning all of downtown Las Vegas into an open-plan office writ large. Hsieh is working to fill the neighborhood with tech startups from diverse fields, along with new restaurants, a health clinic, and other cultural attractions and municipal improvements. His reasoning? As Mark Joseph Stern wrote in Slate, “Hsieh holds an almost romantic faith in a city’s ability to foster creativity through what he called ‘the 3 C’s’: collisions, co-learning, and connectedness.” As Hsieh told Slate, his project is all about  “creating opportunities for people to work and play closer to one another.” Sounds a lot like Michael Bloomberg’s vision for his open-plan corporate HQ.  

Correction, May 5, 2014: This piece originally misstated that the Bloomberg Offices in Midtown Manhattan are within a building designed by Cesar Pelli that was completed in 2006. The building was completed in 2005.

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.