Around 70 percent of U.S. offices are now "open plan." And most people hate them. Many people claim that they are too noisy and too distracting. It's hard to concentrate, especially if you're always being interrupted. Others say that, however well-intended the design might be, it hinders collaboration because it's so hard to have a vigorous debate without drawing attention. According to The Economist, some studies show that workers in open space offices are more likely to suffer from high-blood pressure, stress and all those viruses and colds that circulate freely.

As someone who spent a lot of college time in libraries and who, today, works everywhere--trains, planes, airports, stations, hotel lobbies and conference halls--I'm not quite sure I buy into the criticism. Personally I've always liked being surrounded by people hard at work because I've felt it kept my nose firmly directed to the grindstone. It's a lot harder to play Tetris or read a magazine when your workplace is public. And I enjoyed a sense of solidarity with my colleagues.

Cubicle Culture

I do, however, know that it's hard to do concentrated work when you're at constant risk of being interrupted. That's why I was so impressed visiting Boston-based marketing-and-publishing services company the Pohly Company, where employees have a "Do Not Disturb" sign they can hang on their cubicle or the back of their chair. As for collaboration, it involves far more complex interactions than talking around peoples' desks and that's what meeting rooms, cafes, parks and homes are for. Bugs and flu? You get those mixing with humans and for the most part that is what people come to work for.

I may have been brainwashed by attending a school whose peculiar architecture had eliminated classroom walls. The theory was that if you were bored by your American history teacher, you could listen in to geography instead. It didn't work: The teachers used tall bookshelves to demarcate their territory. And I wonder whether that isn't the heart of the problem with open-plan workplaces. When I visit offices with rows and rows of hundreds of people, I think their implicit message is: You are just a widget. You aren't special, just a cog in the machine.

Open-space offices don't have to be this way. Cubicles don't have to be arrayed in rows, and rooms don't have to be cavernous. You could and should encourage people to enliven their workspaces with as much color and personality as possible. And then ask yourself: Do people really dislike the space--or do they hate their jobs?