In the two years I've been writing about open-plan offices, I've read dozens of scientific studies on the subject, all of which point out that they're a productivity disaster. I've also run across dozens of articles singing their praises (usually in fluent biz-blab) but without providing any real data to prove that that they make people more productive.
Nevertheless, companies continue to design and build these monstrosities and spout "truthy" reasons why they're a good idea ... Open-plan offices are the management equivalent of climate change denial. No amount of scientific truth is going to extract proponents from their willful stupidity.
Anyway, if you work in one of the few organizations that haven't yet been bitten by this egregiously awful management fad, here are 16 solid arguments why private offices, working from home, and even cubicles are better for business than these glorified hotel lobbies.
1. Faster Spreading of Contagious Illnesses
The more people you cram into an enclosed area without barriers, the higher the likelihood that a sneeze or cough will spread disease. Note: A typical sneeze propels 3,000 droplets through the air at speeds up to 50 mph. Open-plan offices are the workplace equivalent of a petri dish. (See No. 12 below.)
2. Gradual Deafness
In open-plan offices, employees often resort to headphones to block out the distracting noise. However,
If one is exposed to sounds greater than 90 dB for an average of eight hours per day without hearing protection, hearing loss will most likely result ... Most portable stereo music systems produce sound in the range of 95-108 dB at level four and in excess of 115 dB at level eight. --David A. Schessel, MD, PhD, hearing specialist
3. Increased Chronic Illness
Open-plan offices are invariably noisy, and
Ambient noise [increases] general stress levels and aggravating stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, coronary disease, peptic ulcers and migraine headaches. Continued exposure does not lead to habituation; in fact, the effects worsen. --National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
4. Less Ability to Concentrate
In many open-plan designs, workers can see people moving about within their peripheral vision. The constant change of scenery makes it harder to think, because "the detection of changes in the visual stimulation results in distraction of cognitive processing," according to the journal NeuroReport.
5. Lower Employee Engagement
Gallup's recent report on the State of the Global Workplace found only 11 percent of workers around the world are engaged and inspired at work, and 63 percent are disengaged--unmotivated and unlikely to invest effort in organizational goals or outcomes. But slicing the data shows that, at least in the United States, those who spend up to 20 percent of their time working remotely are the most engaged of all workers surveyed. --Steelcase report on workplace privacy
6. Less Employee Loyalty
In most open-plan offices, the bigwigs have private offices while everyone else is crammed into the architectural equivalent of a hotel lobby. The hypocrisy of this ("Gee, how come the execs don't need 'collaboration'?") is not lost on employees. Seriously, how can any manager expect to get respect from employees while implementing a work environment that is so blatantly and self-servingly inconsistent?
7. Less Fun at Work
Work is supposed to be fun, right? Well, having fun at work means having loud conversations with your team where it's OK to laugh out loud. In an open-plan office, however, loud talking and laughter of one team disrupts the ability of everyone else to get work done. Open-plan offices thus create peer pressure (usually delivered via "stink-eye") to keep the noise down and the fun to a minimum.
8. Lower-Quality Work
A team of psychological scientists from George Mason University has found that interruptions don't just take up time; they also degrade the overall quality of people's work. --Association for Psychological Science
9. More Missed Deadlines
Open-plan offices are supposed to make teams more productive, but "Plenty of research has shown that distractions cause people to take longer to complete a task," according to the Association for Psychological Science.
10. More Absenteeism
There [is] a "significant excess risk" of short-term employee sick absences in [all] three kinds of open-plan offices. The rate was especially high among women ... In flex-offices -- those open-plan offices that have some conference rooms but no individual work stations -- there was a higher likelihood of short-term sick absences and a larger figure of sick days among men. --Stockholm University
11. More Meaningless Chitchat
The open-plan office encourages socializing, some of which will inevitably take place within earshot. Such conversations are almost always irrelevant to your job but, because you're human, consume your mental bandwidth. (A perfect example, courtesy of the Onion: "Employees From Other Department Announce Plan to Ramble On About F***ing Nothing Right Next to Your Desk")
12. More Presenteeism
One of the reasons there is so much absenteeism in open-plan offices is that people start taking "sick days" in order to get work done. However, since everyone has a (implicitly or explicitly) limited number of sick days, people who've used them up come into the office even when they are sick. (See No. 1 above.)
13. More Unproductive Meetings
Everyone knows (or should know by now) that meetings without agendas waste everyone's time and energy. Nevertheless, a stated and oft-touted goal of the open-plan office is to create a greater number of informal meetings, which by definition don't have agendas. This is insane.
14. More Obnoxious Telephone Calls
Everybody hates it when people take calls in public, because 1) they talk too loud and 2) the alternation of talking and listening makes it harder to ignore than a constant drone. Obnoxious telephone usage is almost unavoidable in an open-plan office, especially an office where salespeople work.
15. More Bad Smells
Some people don't realize that when they wear a certain scent every day, their own noses become immune to it and thus overestimate the amount they need to smell good. Many people (I'm one) are allergic to perfumes. In addition, some people just smell bad, due to body odor and intestinal gas. In an open-plan office, you can't get away from that.
16. Poorer Communication
[Open-plan offices] actually discourage communication among colleagues and team members, due to a lack of confidentiality. A study of more than 42,000 people revealed that open-office workers were more dissatisfied with 'ease of interaction' than those in enclosed offices. --Rivier University