Work life: Why we miss the cubicle
“Employees hate open offices,” said Katharine Schwab in Fast Company. “They’re distracting. They’re loud.” There’s no privacy. But guess what? That doesn’t matter because they’re too “symbolically powerful” for companies to abandon. It’s not just that open offices are cheap—though they are. Open offices signal that people are collaborating and ideas will spark. “The whiff of disruption that open offices carried became irresistible to startups and established companies alike.” Facebook came up with the open office to beat them all: 2,800 employees in a 10-acre building that CEO Mark Zuckerberg called “the perfect engineering space.” In reality, these layouts actually lower the percentage of in-person interactions by 70 percent, while emailing and other electronic messaging rises by 50 percent. Workers in open offices experience more stress—especially women, who one study found “suffered from feeling like they were on display all the time.” And that vaunted collaboration? Sixty-five percent of creative people say they “need quiet or absolute silence to do their best work.”
Open offices aren’t a new idea, said Simone Stolzoff in Qz.com. Until the 1960s, most offices were much like today’s open offices. “Flat desks were set up side by side so that management could look over employees like supervisors observing machines on the factory floor.” The inventor of the ‘Action Office’ partition systems hoped to create privacy and flexibility with movable dividers. Those partitions, shrunk down and squared off, were the ancestors of the “cube farms” that became common in the 1980s. Yes, the latest research shows that most open office plans fail, said Faith Salie in CBSNews.com. “But we didn’t need science to prove how much open offices suck the life out of your workday.” Seventy percent of Americans now work in open offices, and they see the results every day. Anytime you need to have a real conversation, you need to find a way out. “When you have to pitch an important client, you squat in a storage closet.”
Some workers are no longer willing to accept all the downsides of the open office “without a murmur,” said Elaine Moore in the Financial Times. At Apple, which has a dramatic open-plan design, “hardware developers were concerned that engineers would be distracted, and demanded separate spaces.” The rest of us have to make do with carving out a little privacy any way we can. “In the WeWork offices I have been to, the shared desks seemed fairly empty, while the private meeting rooms were full.” The ultimate sign that the open office is due for some serious rethinking? Companies are now spending $3,500 for portable soundproof pods to let their employees get away from their colleagues and actually do their work.