There's no doubt about it: Open-plan offices are the worst office productivity disaster of all time. They create distractions, spread illness, discourage diversity, and promote sexism. Those problems, however, were supposedly justified because open-plan offices promote "collaboration."

While the term "collaboration" is corporate-speak rather than science, when it's applied to open-plan offices, it's usually described as "creating a relaxed, open environment where spontaneous conversations will spark innovation and creativity."

Unfortunately, when Harvard University actually studied open-plan offices, they discovered that people working in them have fewer spontaneous conversations than people who work in private offices--they instead use email and texting more frequently.

The Harvard study revealed the statistics but didn't go into much detail about why people in open-plan offices have fewer conversations. The gist of it, though, is that open-plan employees don't want to disturb everyone around them, so they email and text.

There are many articles about "open-plan etiquette" that illustrate this social dynamic. Here's an except from the etiquette list at LogiSon, a company full of acoustic engineers (who are obviously experts on the subject):

"Use a reasonable voice level--Don't raise your voice during in-person conversations or on the telephone.

Don't hold meetings in your workspace--If you've got time to schedule the meeting, plan to hold it in an appropriate setting.

If an impromptu conversation is going to take time, find an isolated location--Have you gotten onto a fascinating topic or into a heated debate? Move it out of your workspace and into a more appropriate location.

Don't talk or yell past your immediate neighbor--If you have to raise your voice to talk to someone two to three workspaces away, anyone else within earshot won't appreciate it. Go over to the person's desk, phone, or communicate electronically.

Don't use speakerphones--Not only will you raise your voice level, but those around you will hear the other side of the conversation as well. If you need to use your hands while on the phone, use a hands-free headset."

As anyone who works in an open-plan office can see, these are common-sense rules that reflect reasonable social norms inside office workplaces. Each of these rules, however, negates the supposed ability of the open-plan office to spark "collaboration." 


"Use a reasonable voice level."

Spontaneous conversations are supposed to create excitement and inspiration. Since physiology reflects emotion (and vice versa), tamping down your voice also means tamping down your enthusiasm.

"Don't hold meetings in your workspace."

Just a second ... Weren't open-plan offices supposed to create spontaneous conversations? If you need to schedule them forward, they aren't spontaneous any longer, right?

"If an impromptu conversation is going to take time, find an isolated location."

Again, weren't impromptu conversations the supposed raison d'ê?tre of open-plan offices? To make matters worse, in open-plan offices isolated locations are usually limited in number. If one isn't available, no conversation, right? Where's the impromptu in that? 

And what if the impromptu conversation involves what's on your screen or is scattered among multiple documents? You've got to pick everything up and move it, which (of course) may be impossible if your screen is a desktop.

"Don't talk or yell past your immediate neighbor."

Obviously, hollering over people's heads is rude anywhere, but it's a situation that only takes place inside offices that have an open plan.

"Don't use speakerphones."

What if you want to patch a third person (who's remote) into the conversation? Once again, you must undergo the hassle of moving your meeting (and maybe your stuff) into a private space, assuming one is available.

As you can see from the above, if you specifically wanted to create an office environment that discouraged collaboration, spontaneous conversations, and impromptu meetings, the result would either be an open-plan office or a high-security prison.

What Works Instead

Whenever I post about open-plan offices, I get comments along the lines of "cubicles are worse," as if the only alternative to open plan is a cubicle farm.

In fact, there are two time-proven design models that actually increase office productivity: 1) working from home or 2) the Pixar hub, which consists of private offices surrounding a common area.

In my next post, I'll explain how both these models increase collaboration, so stay tuned.