Business Perspectives

Sentiment against the open-office concept gains ground

Diane Stafford
Diane Stafford Kansas City Star

Countless stories over the last few decades, some of which I’ve written, touted the wide-open office workspace – the “cubicle farm” – as an office tool to increase productivity, communication and morale.

Some studies say they’ve done the opposite.

Still, driven by space and monetary considerations, the movement away from private offices continues. And standard cubicle spaces are shrinking to 6 by 6 feet, down from 9 by 9.

News reports in the last few weeks said that even Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure is abandoning the wood-paneled executive suite for an open-office cubicle (though his is a bit roomier than most).

Grant Thornton said its Kansas City office has just been modernized into a smaller, low- or no-partition space that “reduces its carbon footprint.”

The cube farm explosion disappoints Reuben Yonatan, CEO of GetVoIP.com, described as a “comparison resource for technology solutions.” In a blog post, Yonatan cites 18 studies or news reports indicating “there’s absolutely no evidence that an open-plan office boosts morale or productivity, and mounting studies that show the exact opposite effects.”

He suggests a backlash is beginning. “The correlations between privacy and productivity get strong and stronger with each piece of research,” he contends.

One survey found that nearly all workers say privacy is important to them. Thoughtful employers have designed open offices with small, private “huddle rooms,” some akin to large phone booths, that allow workers to hold private phone conversations away from their cubicles.

But that kind of privacy means that people have to leave their work stations and find an available privacy space. Score minus one for productivity.

Another study found that loud co-workers are people’s biggest workplace distraction. Conversations, whether business or personal, pull attention away from tasks at hand. Casual interruptions are more frequent. One report said the average open-office worker is interrupted every three minutes. Short of wearing headphones, score minus two for productivity.

And about those headphones: They don’t do much to encourage teamwork or camaraderie, another selling point for open offices.

There’s also the likelihood that open offices allow an easier spread of disease with every achoo. If flu or common colds speed through workforces, more absences follow. Score minus three for productivity.

I’ve also received reports of backlashes from workers who have been moved into a special kind of open office – the kind where employees aren’t assigned their own desks. This variation generally uses an in-house computer system for workers to claim a workspace for a day, a week or some other specified time. The variation also may offer choices between traditional cubicles, counters or tables shared by others.

“I hate it,” was one flat-out negative from an architect who misses her former office door.

Diane Stafford is a business writer for the Kansas City Star and reports on workplace issues. Reach her at stafford@kcstar.com.

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