Privacy, Please

Open office plans are terrible for workers, so why do they persist?

Photo illustration of an open floor plan office.
Photos by Thinkstock, LYCS LYCS on Unsplash, and Tanner Boriack on Unsplash.

Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.

Of all the workplace trends that inspire grumbling—like budget cuts that eliminate perks or the pressure to check email after hours—perhaps none generate as much vitriol as “open offices,” those wide-open workspaces with no private offices or cubicles. For many workers, the noise, distractions, and lack of privacy make open offices a modern torture device. And yet open floor plans continue to gain popularity among employers.

This account is typical of the many complaints about open offices that flow into my workplace advice column:

I worked for 2 years in an open office layout and I loathed it. I didn’t work closely with any of the people in my department, so I didn’t need to be near them, and every time there was a conversation or just more people passing through our section, I would look up. I spent a lot of time with my headset on or headphones in so I wouldn’t get interrupted, which only sort of worked. Private phone calls had to be taken outside or in the stairwell because you couldn’t use the conference rooms for that, or just at your desk where anyone could listen. There were these lovely tables set up in the floor so people could collaborate. We used them to share cake and that was it. We had much less personal space and could do little decoration or we would 1) ruin the look or 2) mess with the acoustics and make it noisier.

It was awful. Pretty looking, but sucked as work space.

Some open offices include conference rooms that people can book when they need to focus—but as this person points out, shouldn’t that be most of the time?

We have a “quiet room” where people go when they need to focus. I need to focus every day.

Last summer, there was a project that came up suddenly and needed to be done in a few short weeks. My coworker and I were tapped to do the programming. Because it was so high-profile, they reserved a conference room for us for all 3 weeks and put computers in there. Because we needed to be able to focus. Ummm……shouldn’t we have the kind of workspaces already where we can focus? Why is it only important under certain circumstances, and it’s OK to be barely productive the rest of the time?

Here’s a rare person who likes aspects of working out in the open but still had to resort to taking a phone call under her desk:

I work in an open office and while I love it for interacting with coworkers, it’s also sometimes the hub for gathering, and people don’t take the hint when you’re on the phone. I’ve had to take conference calls under my desk because it was so loud. Once, my boss was even in our office area and saw this, but did nothing.

The problems with open offices aren’t limited to the noise and inability to focus. Open offices make it extremely difficult to have the sort of private conversations that are often necessary at work:

At my office, everybody except executive level staff are in the open—including managers with teams of 20 or 30 people. It’s especially painful this time of year when everybody is trying to reserve the one private conference room to do annual appraisals. We often have to do those out in the open just because there’s no other space (we’re in an isolated location so it’s not easy to go to a restaurant or something)—so everybody knows everybody else’s business and employees are generally very aware if anybody’s on a PIP or if somebody’s manager is unhappy with them. It’s really terrible.

If so many people hate open offices, why are they so prevalent? Employers who preside over them say the lack of walls promotes collaboration, since it’s easier for spontaneous conversations to occur. But the people who are stuck working in them report that’s not how it typically plays out:

I work in an open office environment as well. I actually used to have an office but we moved to a new building and my company decided to be real “edgy” with the layout for collaboration and blah blah blah, which means I spend my day struggling to focus on a job that requires a whole lot of it. Headphones help somewhat, but what ends up happening is that everyone is wearing headphones so no one can actually collaborate. We’re all constantly waving in each others’ faces and taking our headphones on and off. It’s honestly the dumbest professional experience I’ve ever had.

If open floor plans don’t really enhance collaboration, and they make it hard for employees to focus on their work without distraction, what’s driving their increase? It’s probably no coincidence that open offices generally save employers a ton of money on office space:

I work at an interior design firm that specializes in commercial offices. Oftentimes, these open office situations are put into play because it is a cost savings for the company (more people in less space, often saving money on a new office or major renovation to accommodate company growth). Also, almost every approval for this is being made by someone high up enough that they won’t be affected by it. They overlook the value of employees’ happiness, not realizing that the distraction and lack of privacy can be detrimental to employees’ job satisfaction. Ultimately, in their goal to save building/space cost, they increase turnover and rarely do they realize the connection.

Their increasing prevalence leaves workers in a bind. Even if you screen out employers with open office spaces during your job search, there’s nothing to guarantee that your employer won’t move in that direction six months after you start. But still, the more employees speak up and push back (ideally as a group, which will carry more weight), the higher the chances employers will realize the cost to focus, productivity, and morale.

Until then: headphones.