At The New Yorker, Maria Konnikova pens, THE OPEN-OFFICE TRAP

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

Speaking from within the architectural profession, when we do office spaces, I currently see plans with enclosed, windowed offices – for the pointy-haired bosses – surrounding an interior officescape of low walls or or modular furniture – for the support staff.

Such layouts are largely determined by the clients. As architects we try to make office layouts as efficient as possible – we suggest ways to bring daylight and views to those open areas – but the clients usually tell us exactly who will be in offices and who will be in open office areas.

What is driving open layouts is status and money. Employees with higher status, or a demonstrable need for privacy to do their jobs, get private offices. Providing individual offices doesn’t necessarily cost that much more than a good quality modular work station, but a firm can write off the depreciation of a modular system on its taxes in a way that it can’t write off permanent improvements. They can also move and bring their investment along to a new space.


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