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The Immortal Awfulness of Open Plan Workplaces

The New York Times: “For decades, research has found that open plan offices are bad for companies, bad for workers, bad for health and bad for morale. And yet they just won’t die. Human beings, if they are to thrive, need a bit of privacy — walls and a door. And yet employers, decade after decade, neglect to give workers what they need, refuse to do what’s in their own self-interest….The ideology of open plan workplaces associates walls and rooms with authoritarianism, hierarchy and social isolation. If you put people together in one big room, or in low cubicles, the popular thinking goes, they will collaborate, a spirit of egalitarian togetherness will reign. This high-minded theory nicely dovetails with the somewhat less idealistic logic of cost per square foot. If you jam a lot of people into a crowded space with no separations, you can squeeze in more employees at lower cost. The first problem is that open floor plans don’t foster more face-to-face collaboration, they foster less. People can take only so much social interaction. If you shove them together cheek by jowl they will just put on headphones and burrow into themselves. A much-cited study by Ethan Bernstein and Stephen Turban found that when companies made the move to more open plan offices, workers had about 70% fewer face-to-face interactions, while email and instant messaging use rose. Another study of open office workers in major U.S. cities found that 31% held back their sincere thoughts on phone calls because they didn’t want their co-workers to overhear them. It turns out that if you take out physical walls, people will create norms that discourage communication, what Bernstein and Ben Waber call a “fourth wall.” As they wrote in Harvard Business Review, “If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly.”

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