Tear Down That Wall!?

AKA The Open Office Concept Sucks

By In Weekly Email 5 Minute Read Time

Tear Down that Wall!?

Pet rocks.  Smelly stickers.  The RAZR phone. Fluorescent shoestrings.  And the internets.  All are fads that can be found in the dirty dustbin of history.  Okay, maybe Al Gore and his internets will stick around for a bit.  But one of the biggest movements over the past decade takes a script straight out of President Ronnie Reagan when he implored Gorbachev to tear down this wall.  Well, it worked to bring an end to the Cold War, but as it applies to office space and corporate America, the verdict is much more mixed.  Put simply, open office spaces may make sense on first blush, but scratch a little, and you’ll find that they probably don’t.  
 
The Research 
Two researchers from the University of Sydney decided they wanted to know more about these wide, open offices spaces.  Why?  Because someone stole their milk money when they were kids. We’re just not sure, but we’re glad they did. So, professors Kim and deDear absolutely tore up a Cal-Berkeley database that collected all kinds of good intel about office space.  Yes, believe it or not, there’s a database for everything.  And these two Profs took a close look at this database and examined many interesting and not-so-interesting variables.  These included five dimensions of the physical office set up.  Predictably, you’ll find enclosed private offices (put my vote on that one!), enclosed shared office spaces, cubicles with high partitions, cubicles with low partitions, and GOD HAVE MERCY, open offices with no partitions.  Yes, you’re naked and afraid.
 
They, then, looked at how the set-up of the office influenced perceptions of air quality, temperature, noise level, and sound privacy, and ease of interaction.  There’s more, but we’ve got a newsletter to publish.  And with a big, fat, juicy cherry-on-the-top, they looked at how all of this rolled up and influenced occupant or worker satisfaction.  
 
Surprise! People Like Private Office Space
Spoiler alert.  The personal, private office garnered more satisfaction with worker satisfaction slowly and steadily moving down into shitter status as we approach wide, open offices.  Since we’re in the sewer, let’s stay there for a bit.  The open-plan offices missed worse than Shaq O’Neal shooting freethrows in the areas of visual privacy, sound privacy, and noise distraction.  Interestingly, the whole modus operandi of open-plan offices was to spur ‘ease of interaction’.  Well, that didn’t quite happen.  Ease of interaction was not meaningfully higher in open-plan offices than in private offices!   
 
All or Nothing When it Comes to Open Concept
A bit surprising, but totally open offices, in general, did better than bullshit partitions that are caught in no-man’s lands between open offices and private ones.  Go big or go home, we guess.  But partitions suck and this study seemed to reinforce that.  Plainly, it’s better to be naked and afraid in a totally open office space than hunkering down behind partitions.   
 
Interactions May Improve, but Privacy Wins
One of the more interesting findings from their parsing of the database was this: the cons outweighed the pros when it came to moving towards open office layouts.  So, even when occupants in open, free offices said that their interaction with their catty and bitchy colleagues improved, it wasn’t enough to off-set the degradation of acoustical quality, sound, and visual privacy.  That mattered more.  
 
Organizations may move towards open offices for a variety of reasons.  Notably, they just look so cool and egalitarian.  Also, show us (or them) the money!  Open office plans increase net usable area—meaning more real estate to all of our Donald Trumpers out there!  And, some (mostly vendors of open office design firms) argue that they’re exceedingly easy to reconfigure and are flexible with organizational changes like when your department gets shitcanned–  
But, for the people, by the people, this isn’t.  Satisfaction and perceptions of privacy go way down making people feel like they’re back in Gorbachev’s Soviet Union since we led with that. But don’t take our word for it, feel free to examine the Beta coefficients, the regression analysis, and a radar chart (yes, there’s such a thing) in Kim’s and deDear’s research in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.  Until then, keep your sunglasses pulled low and your shades drawn.  
 
We will continue to wear our sunglasses at night.  
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