Facebook's Utopia, Our Nightmare: Open Offices Are Destroying Productivity
For as long as there have been businesses in operation, leaders have been looking for ways to boost productivity in the workplace. In 1856, the British government conducted a report on office space layouts. The report said, “For the intellectual work, separate rooms are necessary so that a person who works with his head may not be interrupted; but for the more mechanical work, the working in concert of a number of clerks in the same room under proper superintendence, is the proper mode of meeting it.”
Fast-forward to 1906 and the opening of the Larkin Administration Building. Dubbed the first modern office, the building was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and highlighted an open office plan. The open-office concept continued throughout the 20th century, but it really took off in the 2000s, thanks to tech giants like Google, Apple and Facebook embracing the open layout.
When Facebook unveiled its new campus in 2012, Mark Zuckerberg claimed it would be "the largest open floor plan in the world." The campus, which is actually a single room stretching 10 acres, was designed by architect Frank Gehry.
Some Facebook employees, such as product designer Tanner Christensen, believe the new campus encourages productivity, collaboration and creativity. That's because the open design focuses on mobility, empowers individual boundaries and encourages chance encounters.
That may be true in some cases, but most employees don’t share the same excitement. In 2015, The Washington Post published an article that boldly stated that the open-office trend “is destroying the workplace” at places like Google because it’s too “oppressive.” In 2017, The Wall Street Journal reported that Apple wasn’t happy with the open-office design: “Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting.”
While neither shares Facebook's version of an open workspace, both articles highlight the fact that companies are prioritizing design over function. What’s more, two-thirds of the 42,764 respondents to a University of Sydney study on workplace satisfaction found “open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts.” In fact, researchers stated, “Between 20 percent and 40 percent of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy and over 20 percent of all office occupants, regardless of office layout, registered dissatisfaction with the thermal conditions.”
Besides employees being dissatisfied with open office plans, they’re detrimental to productivity. That spells bad news for Facebook going forward.
Harder to focus, with more distractions.
This should be obvious.
Everyone has that one teammate who's so loud (and perhaps so obnoxious) that he distracts the entire office. Instead of being able to close a door to enjoy uninterrupted work, colleagues are pulled to engage in conversations. Research has even found that hearing one side of a phone conversation is more distracting than listening to both sides of an in-person conversation.
Professors Anne-Laure Fayard and John Weeks note in their article “Who Moved My Cube” that “some studies show that employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.”
Even more, as pointed out in The New Yorker, “Psychologist Nick Perham, who studies the effect of sound on how we think, has found that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic." Overall, employees claim they’re losing 86 minutes a day to distractions.
Stressed or sick? Probably both.
A study conducted by Dr. Vinesh Oommen at the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation found that working in environments without offices "caus[es] high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure and a high staff turnover."
Another study of 10,000 workers, funded by Steelcase, reported that "95 percent said working privately was important to them, but only 41 percent said they could do so, and 31 percent had to leave the office to get work completed."
Of course, when more people get sick, there are more absences. The New Yorker states that companies with an open-office design can anticipate employees to take 62 percent more sick leave. But that's not the only way office mates in the open concept affect each other's actions: Research from the Auckland University of Technology also shows that open offices often can lead to antisocial behaviors.
Researchers have found that in shared working spaces, there are increases in “employee social liabilities.” This includes “distractions, uncooperativeness, distrust and negative relationships. More surprisingly, both co-worker friendships and perceptions of supervisor support actually worsened.”
That’s because employees don’t feel as if they have supportive supervision. Additionally, between the lack of support and the noise, employees in open offices eventually “become more irritated, suspicious and withdrawn.”
Related: 9 Rules of Open-Office Etiquette
Busyness as a proxy for productivity.
As defined by Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work,” “In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner.”
Newport goes on to explain: “If you send and answer emails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems... all of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.”
This is what happens in an open office: Managers tend to evaluate their team members on how busy they appear. That’s because they look out on the floor and see people on their computers, but they could be playing a game or updating their social media accounts instead of working.
Ending the nightmare.
If you’re designing a new workspace for your startup or business, you can consider some alternatives to an open layout.
Hub and Spoke is actually a hybrid of an open office and a closed office. While there are central spaces and hallways that are open, there are still individual offices. M.I.T.’s Building 20 is an excellent example of the Hub and Spoke approach.
Eudamonia Machine comes from Newport himself; in this concept, offices are divided into five spaces: the Gallery, Salon, Library, Office and Chamber. You must pass through each room to get to the next. However, each room encourages more concentrated and focused work. Writer’s Cabin doesn’t have to literally be a cabin. It’s actually any location where you can get serious, uninterrupted work done. It could be your local coffee shop, the library or even a tiny house in your backyard.
Open offices may have sounded like a utopian dream to many entrepreneurs in the last decade, but seeing how they've played out in recent years proves they're a nightmare for productivity. Leaders looking to keep their teams sane -- and working -- would do well to explore other options. Design over function is a fun way to run a business, but it's not a very smart one.