Whenever I post about open plan offices, I get a flood of tweets complaining about how much people hate working in them. I can count on one hand the number of tweets from people who like them.

It isn't just my Twitter followers. Extensive peer-reviewed research spanning nearly four decades has found that 1) employees intensely dislike the open plan, and 2) open plan doesn't make employees more productive. The scientific consenus is overwhelming:

  • 1982: "Employees who enjoyed performing managerial and technical tasks reacted more unfavorably to office conditions than did clerical staff, who generally viewed their work as undemanding. Loss of privacy and increased disturbances were consistently at the source of these negative reactions." (University of Aston)
  • 1989: "Results indicated that greater satisfaction was expressed by those working in the private offices. In addition, people working on the complex task were more satisfied in the private setting than the non-private one." (University of Georgia)
  • 2002: "Results indicated decreased employee satisfaction with all of the dependent measures following the relocation. Moreover, the employees' dissatisfaction did not abate, even after an adjustment period." (University of Calgary)
  • 2009: "Negative effects of acoustic environment increased significantly, including increased distraction, reduced privacy, increased concentration difficulties and increased use of coping strategies. The benefits that are often associated with open-plan offices did not appear: cooperation became less pleasant and direct." (Finnish Institute of Occupational Health)
  • 2013: "Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts... particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced 'ease of interaction' were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration." (University of Sydney)
  • 2015: "The majority of respondents who were situated in open plan work-environments preferred private offices as opposed to open plan offices, especially since it had an adverse influence on employees' concentration, privacy and emotional well-being." (Cape University Institute of Technology)
  • 2018: "Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM." (Harvard University)

So it's hardly a secret that open plan offices don't work and make employees miserable. Yet the percentage of companies moving to open plan is increasing rather than decreasing.

How come?

It can't be the supposed cost-savings in building operation costs like floor space, air conditioning, etc., because even a tiny hit on worker productivity (and we're talking about a big hit here) would more than offset those costs-savings. As one study put it, that "a company would have to eliminate more than a month's worth of building operating costs to pay for just two days of lost worker productivity."

If not cost-savings, what?

I once suggested it had to do with power politics because open plan made the remaining private offices more of a status symbol. In some offices, though, the CEO suffers along with everyone else. I also suggested that open plan resulted from a need to micromanage. But it's just as easy--perhaps easier--to micromanage using online tools; "over the shoulder" tactics are no longer necessary.

So what are we left with?

After thinking this through, I believe the continued popularity of open plan offices represents a simple case of confusing correlation with causation. Or as one CEO put it "if Google does it, it must be good."  This argument proceeds as follows:

1. High tech companies embraced open plan.

2. Some high tech companies are successful.

Therefore

3. Open plan will make MY company successful.

That the above argument is a fallacy in logic can be shown by the parallel argument:

1. People at high tech companies wear sneakers.

2. Some high tech companies are successful.

Therefore

3. Wearing sneakers will make MY company successful.

The argument is doubly fallacious because the vast majority of high tech startups aren't successful. Therefore, if there were a causal connection between open plan offices (or sneakers) and success, it would have be that open plan offices (or sneakers) tend to make companies fail.

Unfortunately, the logical fallacy that open plan offices make companies more successful has so permeated the business world that somebody like Mike Bloomberg can actually suggest that he'd turn a big chunk of the White House into an open plan office--and not get laughed at. Sad.