Open Offices Fail: Here’s Why

Published on SkilledUp

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When my boss invited me to New York for two weeks, I was nervous.

As a work-from-home contractor, I get a lot of work done in a week. Of course, I live by myself and the biggest distraction for me is Starbucks around noon and 5 p.m. every day.

The team in New York recently moved to an open-office floor plan at a suave co-working space in Manhattan.

How productive would I be in those two weeks, I wondered.

I purchased a box packed with unstylish, green earplugs and jumped on the train to New York.

How Do People Really Feel About Open Offices?

SkilledUp is part of the 70% of U.S. offices that have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association.

We are far from the first to bid open arms to these new offices though. In fact, open offices date back to a team in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1950s. They ideated the open-office floor plan to increase communication and idea flow.

Recent surveys and opinion pieces beg the question: Do the pros of open offices really outweigh the cons?

According to the research: No, they do not.

In one study, researchers concluded that the loss of productivity due to noise distraction was doubled in open offices compared to private ones, writer Lindsey Kaufman said in a Washington Post commentary, “Google got it Wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.”

More Distractions, Less Privacy

It was not just the productivity thing that made me nervous about venturing to New York though, but also the feeling like everybody was going to be watching me.

It’s like when you’re writing in a Google Doc, and someone else is in the doc with you. It’s an uncomfortable feeling – like someone is watching your every move.

One study found that a sense of privacy boosts job performance but also causes feelings of helplessness.

So while superiors may think they are getting an increase in employee productivity, it is most likely not the case. Instead they are getting a false sense of improved productivity.

Another study reported that many workers in open offices are upset by distractions, which leads to poorer work performance. Nearly half of the surveyed workers said the lack of sound and visual privacy was a significant problem for them.

Regardless of the fact that I purchased ear plugs to be more efficient in that time, I found myself constantly interrupted by phone calls, questions, comments and co-workers asking me to move or rearrange myself and my belongings.

It seemed as if everyone was just looking for somewhere to hide out and get their work done in peace.

The Cons Outweigh the Pros

The New Yorker pointed out that the research on this new type of work space proves that the benefits simply mask the negative effects on work performance.

Something I have not had to deal with, but something Lindsey Kaufman points out is that the open office makes everyone on the team more susceptible to illness. When one person comes to work sick, the rest begin falling down like dominoes.

I have to admit, I enjoyed the two weeks I spent in SkilledUp’s open office in New York. There is a “but,” though.

But I did find myself at the lower-end of the productivity scale because there were always so many interesting conversations going on that my ear plugs could not block out; and so, like any normal human being, I found myself chiming in on the non-work conversations more often than not.

In Boston, where I live, I also work from a co-working space sometimes and from coffee shops a lot because working from home does get lonely.

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