Open offices may be the worst thing to happen to employee productivity since the three-martini lunch. They are distracting, noisy, and irritating. They erode workers’ sense of “psychological privacy,” which, it turns out, is crucial for creativity and focus. They ruin morale and even seem to promote absenteeism. The New Yorker’s Maria Konnikova thoroughly summarized the research on open offices in 2014, concluding that they are “damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.” Konnikova’s article is one of many to slam open offices over the past few years, with headlines like “The Case Against Open Offices,” “Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad for Employees, Bosses, and Productivity,” and “The Open-Office Trend Is Destroying the Workplace.”
The recent backlash might make you think that open offices are a recent scourge. In fact, open offices have been around for decades—and researchers have known about their negative effects for almost as long. Researchers writing in the Academy of Management Journal in 1980 already knew from prior studies that “workers in open plan offices generally report having less privacy, spending more time talking, hearing more noise, and experiencing more distractions.” A 1982 survey of 649 workers in open offices found “no evidence … to support the claim for improved productivity in open-plan.”
And yet, employers have not deemed the open office an ill-conceived relic of the 1970s. As of the early 2000s, 70 percent of offices had an open floorplan—and while some companies might be rethinking the merits of the open office, most aren’t. Packing workers into an office space like sardines costs less than building private offices (or even private cubicles) for each person. Employers might decide that the real-estate savings associated with open offices make up for the lost productivity.
So what are modern office workers, sitting just a few feet away from one another, to do? One jerk who talks loudly, interrupts co-workers while they’re focusing, and makes unsolicited comments about what other people are looking at on their computer monitors can singlehandedly distract and demoralize an entire office. To make open offices more pleasant, everyone needs to take care not to be that jerk.
Luckily, technology has reduced the need to make noise in open offices, and many workplaces have embraced instant messaging services like Slack, which allow workers to communicate in groups and one-on-one without intruding on other people’s train of thought. Even if your employer doesn’t subscribe to Slack, you might find that it’s easier to communicate with your closest associates via Gchat than in meatspace. There are a few caveats here—if you’re dealing with sensitive info, your employer might prefer that you not leave an electronic record of your conversation—but for most basic questions (and gossip), chatting is your friend. Slack and Gchat present their own distractions—but at least they don’t disturb innocent bystanders at nearby desks.
Of course, some conversations are easier to have in person than over instant message. If you think it’ll be faster and less confusing to clarify a point face-to-face, go for it—after all, an open office in which no one feels comfortable making a peep might be more oppressive than an open office in which constant conversations prevent anyone from focusing. But if you must have a conversation in person, either keep it brief or take it into a conference room. And if you’re just craving some small talk, go to the kitchen, or invite a colleague out for a walk. Don’t shout across the bullpen to get your co-worker’s attention—take the extra 30 seconds to walk over to their desk and quietly say what you need to say. Conversely, if two of your co-workers are having a conversation near you, don’t butt in unless they ask for your input.
Of course, if the person you want to talk to lives in another city, you’ll probably have to pick up the phone to talk to them—and you will drive your co-workers crazy if you do this from your desk. Overhearing one side of a telephone conversation is more distracting than overhearing both sides of an in-person conversation. It is inconvenient not to take or make work-related phone calls from your desk—a fact that underscores the lunacy of open offices—but if you go somewhere private with your cellphone, your open-officemates will thank you. I have a friend who schedules her work-related phone calls for days when she works from home, to ensure that she’ll have some privacy and won’t bother her co-workers. If you’re stuck in the office, try booking a free conference room to spare your colleagues the agony of overhearing your aggressively cheerful phone voice, and to ensure that you won’t feel self-conscious about your small talk and interviewing skills. If you work on a sales team or in another environment where frequent phone calls are the norm, staying at your desk, using headphones, and keeping your voice down is the best strategy. Some employers actively create spaces in which employees can have private phone calls. Not to brag, but Slate’s New York office recently acquired futuristic-looking, soundproof telephone booths in which anyone can bring their cellphone to take a call. They’re great.
Most of the above advice boils down to basic etiquette and common sense—but we all know at least one colleague who defies basic etiquette and common sense. That’s where management comes in. Researchers from the office furniture company Steelcase, writing in the Harvard Business Review, recommend that managers both explicitly communicate open-office policies—such as by designating quiet hours—and also model respectful behavior by not, for instance, barging in on the personal space of someone who’s signaled a desire to be left alone by wearing headphones. (For what it’s worth, some research shows that employees are more productive when their managers aren’t watching them.) In general, managers should keep an eye on social dynamics and step in to run interference for long-suffering employees. If you manage a pair of talkative deskmates who distract everyone around them with their chatter, encourage them to take it to Slack, and physically separate them if they don’t. If one of your employees has a habit of taking phone calls in the middle of the bullpen, send her a casual email reminder to take it to a conference rooms—and if she forgets, be prepared to tap her on the shoulder mid-call to ask her to move. Interactions like this are awkward, but bosses owe it to all their workers to provide a quiet workspace—and that means occasionally confronting outliers who don’t respond to social pressure from co-workers.
Bosses also have a role to play in masking noise and reducing sound distractions, even if they don’t have the budget to rebuild a workspace from scratch. If you don’t have the resources to build “an immersive soundscape complete with sonic art installations, featured playlists, and coordinating lighting cues,” the way one sonic branding firm in New York did, you can add white-noise machines to drown out ambient noise and give everyone more privacy. You can also move noisemaking equipment like printers and vending machines out of earshot of your staff. And consider having the company foot the bill for noise-canceling headphones for anyone who wants them. They’re the next best thing to walls.
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