THE OPEN OFFICE
PLUTOCRATIC DREAM OR NIGHTMARE?
A HARD LOOK AT THE WORLD
OF DIGITAL SERFDOM
The ‘open office’ – where workers all share common spaces, without privacy or a fixed base of operations – offers the illusion that everyone in an organization is equal, but studies show it makes life more difficult and less healthy for most employees.
By 2010, according to one study, 68 percent of office workers were working in spaces with no walls or low walls.
How did we get here? It begins with offices themselves. Some say offices began in the first century CE with the Roman Tabularium, where many Roman government officials worked and where Rome’s official documents were kept. Later, medieval monks worked in cells that resembled the modern cubicle in some ways.
But the modern office, as a place where people gathered to work for a corporate employer, first began taking shape in the 17th century.
The open office idea has been explored for more than a century, from the early 20th-century efficiency expert Frank Taylor through architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It got a major boost in the 1980s, as the Herman Miller company’s adjustable walls and furniture led to a new kind of workspace: the dreaded “cubicle farm.”
The “Action Office” was originally intended to make life better for employees by giving them attractive workspaces that adapted to each employee’s needs. “Seeing these designs,” said an article in Industrial Design, “one wonders why office workers have put up with their incompatible, unproductive, uncomfortable environment for so long.”
But the flexible office wasn’t used in the way its designers intended. “The dark side of this is that not all organizations are intelligent and progressive," said one of the original designers. "Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes."
Unions were already weakened by then, especially in the private sector, or they might have pushed back against the open office concept. Unions represent a larger percentage of government workers, which is where one of the few recorded cases of pushback occurred in 1992. NASA’s open-office plan met with resistance from a group representing many of its employees. The NASA Professional Headquarters Association, which has collective bargaining rights, had proposed private offices instead of small cubicles, and had also suggested that each professional employee’s office have a window.
An arbitration panel ruled against the union, concluding that “the open-landscape design provided for more efficient use of space and was more cost-effective.”
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg was a devotee of open offices. He brought the concept with him when he became mayor of New York.
What the Science Says
For example, a 2009 review of the research on open offices found that open offices caused a ”multitude of problems such as the loss of privacy, loss of identity, low work productivity, various health issues, overstimulation and low job satisfaction.”
Other studies reached similar conclusions.
One study showed that, while open offices were supposed to increase face-to-face interaction and collaboration, they actually went down by 70 percent. “In short,” it said, “rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates …”
A study published in 2015 showed that common spaces in offices contributed to the spread of viruses.
The open-office design does reduce office space, and therefore lowers some costs. That was the arbitration panel’s logic in ruling against the NASA employees. And it helps explain one number in WeWork’s 2014 presentation to investors – a number that went all but unnoticed at the time. It showed that employees at WeWork’s facilities took up only 60 square feet of workspace – which, if true, was far less than average.
That figure reflects the one advantage the open office had over other designs: it forces employees to work in smaller spaces, which saves money on rent, utilities, and environmental control (heat, cooling, and air purification).
But that doesn’t make open offices cost-effective, because – as another study showed – the open-office design interfered with workers’ focus, and therefore with productivity.
Much of that difficulty was caused by distracting conversations. A laboratory experiment on noise distraction found that “Objectively measured professional performance was lowest in the open office.”
That finding was confirmed by an Acoustical Society of America study which concluded: “Open offices that make effective use of limited space and encourage dialogue, interaction, and collaboration among employees are becoming increasingly common. However, productive work-related conversation might actually decrease the performance of other employees within earshot — more so than other random, meaningless noises.”
Another study found that workers were 32 percent more productive in a fixed workspace they could personalize, as opposed to a “lean” and unfriendly workspace (or no personal workspace at all).
These findings, among others, convinced a contributing editor at Inc. magazine to conclude that open offices are a “net huge loss,” despite the short-term savings.
The open office is unpopular among workers. And worries about its ability to spread viruses, about viral spread, first examined in the 2015 study, can now be added to past concerns about productivity, stress, and overall well-being for workers.
Will the pandemic finally kill the open office? That’s not likely, unless someone leads the charge against it. Michael Bloomberg still supported the idea during his 2020 presidential campaign, when he said he would bring the “open office” layout to the West Wing – despite the studies showing its shortcomings. Other CEOs undoubtedly agree with him.
Unions could conceivably resist the trend, at least in the public sector. Local 1000 of the SEIU, which also represents California state workers, already included questions of office layout and design in its 2013-2016 master agreement.
The Professional Engineers in California Government, which represents some state employees, recently wrote an open letter arguing that the layout of the state government’s new office buildings posed a health threat in the wake of the coronavirus. The Sacramento Bee reports that the letter says, “Open floor plans, collaborative spaces and reductions to private offices should be reconsidered given threats from the coronavirus and other infectious diseases that could come along.” (we were unable to obtain a copy of the letter itself)
The union’s executive director said, ““We’re talking about what restaurants will look like next month and into the future; let’s do the same evaluation of what state buildings and state workplaces will look like.”
Or, conceivably, for every office in the country.
“The Origin of Cubicles and the Open-Plan Office,” Scientific American.
“The History of Office Design,” K2 Space.
“A Short History of the Office,” The Conversation.
“The Tabularium,” Musei Capitolini.
“The Scriptorium,” Encyclopedia Britannica.
Home: A Short History of An Idea, Witold Rybczynski, Penguin Books, 1986.