Tech Office Layout Blowback: Partitions Weren’t So Bad After All

English: The RedBalloon office - an example of...

In a refreshing push-back against all things currently trendy in office layout, ad agency creative Lindsey Kaufman takes to the pages of the Washington Post today to rail against the now-popular “open office” design.  Inspired by the tech industry, the open office configuration takes away partitions and emphasizes shared space for a whole host of now-familiar reasons. Kaufman writes:

Despite its obvious problems, the open-office model has continued to encroach on workers across the country. Now, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association. Silicon Valley has been the leader in bringing down the dividers. Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express are all adherents.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enlisted famed architect Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, housing nearly 3,000 engineers. And as a businessman, Michael Bloomberg was an early adopter of the open-space trend, saying it promoted transparency and fairness. He famously carried the model into city hall when he became mayor of New York,  making “the Bullpen” a symbol of open communication and accessibility to the city’s chief.

Calling out the “false sense of improved productivity” that bosses take away from office layouts lacking dividers and partitions, Kaufman cites a study published last year in the Journal of Environmental Psychology that finds nearly half of all office workers attribute lack of sound privacy to frustrating distractions leading to poorer performance.

Further, the study finds that the open office provides a solution to a problem that basically nobody ever had — ease of interaction with colleagues. As anybody who’s heard the pitch on the open office layout can recall, office layouts that divide workspaces with walls or partitions tend to interfere with “collaboration” and “the free exchange of information and ideas” about the workplace mission.  Hogwash, says Kaufman:

The New Yorker, in a review of research on this nouveau workplace design, determined that the benefits in building camaraderie simply mask the negative effects on work performance. While employees feel like they’re part of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.  Furthermore, a sense of privacy boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness. In addition to the distractions, my colleagues and I have been more vulnerable to illness. Last flu season took down a succession of my co-workers like dominoes.

As the new space intended, I’ve formed interesting, unexpected bonds with my cohorts. But my personal performance at work has hit an all-time low. Each day, my associates and I are seated at a table staring at each other, having an ongoing 12-person conversation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.  It’s like being in middle school with a bunch of adults. Those who have worked in private offices for decades have proven to be the most vociferous and rowdy. They haven’t had to consider how their loud habits affect others, so they shout ideas at each other across the table and rehash jokes of yore. As a result, I can only work effectively during times when no one else is around, or if I isolate myself in one of the small, constantly sought-after, glass-windowed meeting rooms around the perimeter.

Adjust your noise-cancelling headphones and read Kaufaman’s entire piece here.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

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