In a poll conducted earlier this year among several hundred corporate members of the American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC), a nonprofit business-research organization in Houston, more than half the respondents (56.8%) said they worked in fully walled offices, while less than a quarter (21.4%) claimed modular settings. The nearly three-to-one ratio suggests that semiwalled workplaces are not gaining on closed-door tradition as rapidly as the office-decor trade may presume. Indeed, a number of respondents thought open or modular offices showed disregard for people, dispatching that opinion -- the APQC was chagrined to note -- in "strong language." Groused one, "Open offices reflect a 'cheap' attitude." An organization that implements them, another complained, "treats employees as cattle."

Why so snippety? Disaffection is likely to result, theorizes Dan Wiseman, an APQC-affiliated consultant on white-collar work settings, "if you impose an open office on people who don't perceive themselves as a team." When one company designed new open offices, it separated clerical people from the executives they supported. The physical and social isolation resulted in a marked increase in errors and delays. After the company asked the employees to redo the layout themselves, efficiency and morale soared. "If office people are given a chance to create ownership of their own space," Wiseman observes, "they find ways to make it work."

-- Robert A. Mamis