Is It Time for the Open Office Floor Plan to Die?

Open Office Floor Plan
Open Office Floor Plan

Open offices are widely lamented by developers and others who like their own space, but large companies continue to hold such layouts up as bastions of good taste and productivity. For example, Apple’s infamous ‘spaceship’ headquarters in Cupertino features an open-office design. Why are we still doing this to ourselves?

Perhaps the most glaring example of an open floor plan is Facebook’s new headquarters, reportedly the largest such design in the world. It’s 10 acres of desks under a shared roof, with even CEO Mark Zuckerberg working elbow-to-elbow with everyone else. It’s built to house over 2,800 engineers.

Apple’s new campus was well thought-out, down to the door-handles that supposedly took over a year to design. The designers wanted the doorways to lack thresholds, because (according to a Reuters report) “if engineers had to adjust their gait while entering the building, they risked distraction from their work, according to a former construction manager.”

But as The Wall Street Journal points out, some Apple employees are already taking issue with the design: “Coders and programmers are concerned that their work surroundings will be too noisy and distracting.” While not quite a Facebook-esque version of open workspace, the spaceship nonetheless seems to prioritize design over function.

A common refrain in defense of open floor pans is cost, but neither Apple or Facebook can use that one (Apple’s new campus is rumored to have cost the company north of $5 billion). Google’s plan is so open that literally everything inside is modular; the campus becomes one with the community in Mountain View as well as the green-space around it.

Are We Too Worried About the Open Office?

Two-thirds of the 42,764 respondents to a University of Sydney study on workplace satisfaction say they report to an open office environment. “In general, open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,” the researchers concluded. “Between 20% and 40% of open plan office occupants expressed high levels of dissatisfaction for visual privacy and over 20% of all office occupants, regardless of office layout, registered dissatisfaction with the thermal conditions.”

Open office plans are so lamented that we penned an article in 2015 on how to survive them. The advice: You should minimize distractions as best you can – something more easily attainable with a proper office to retreat to.

This is probably a good time to point out Dice’s various U.S. offices have open floor plans with private meeting rooms. In an open space, respect matters, as does keeping meeting rooms available. Ducking into a room to take a call is fine, but squatting to finish some work isn’t. (We’re lucky to have a lot of respectful people at Dice.)

Microsoft strikes a balance between open and traditional offices. At its “Developer Division” in Redmond, the company has ‘focus rooms’ where a developer can tuck into a codebase without worrying about who’s seeing their screen. The rooms are closed off from the open area, which also houses dedicated conference rooms.

A study dubbed ‘The Transparency Paradox’ used field experiments to examine employee productivity in open office environments, noting “empirical evidence from the field shows that even a modest increase in group-level privacy sustainably and significantly improves line performance, while qualitative evidence suggests that privacy is important in supporting productive deviance, localized experimentation, distraction avoidance, and continuous improvement.” In other words, a bit of privacy equals productivity and creativity.

Based on an examination of assembly line manufacturing, the study showed that, when managers are separated from workers, productivity increased 10-15 percent. One reason is that company policy is often not aligned with productivity; employees report that when management watches them work, they’re more inclined to follow nuanced rules, many of which have no direct correlation to productivity.

Take a step back and your takeaway might be that employees – no matter where they work, or what they do – typically just want to do a good job and be productive. To that, it’s reasonable to consider open offices a bad thing. Save for collaborative efforts and meetings, open offices have proven to undermine morale and productivity, something every company claims to be sensitive to. Corporate action and dictum don’t align when it comes to open offices, so we have to wonder when they’ll turn the corner and stop dumping billions of dollars into spaces that many employees don’t want to be in.

21 Responses to “Is It Time for the Open Office Floor Plan to Die?”

  1. Mike Mobley

    I find it interesting that these companies will use “cost” as a reason for continuing the open office floor plan, yet a lot provide everything an employee needs so they never have to actually leave the workplace (i.e. catered meals, nap rooms, tv/game rooms, etc.). How much do these “extras” cost? Why not cut back on some of these frivolities and give people back their privacy? That is, unless employee’s would prefer these things over their privacy…for me, I’d take a private/semi-private office any day of the week.

  2. It is very distracting and my feeling us that it is a drain on productivity, at least for tasks that involve deep thought. There are a couple of ways to fight it, however. First, noise cancelling headphones have become quite good, so I tend to wear those most of the day. Also, leaving the office and going for a walk is my best way of solving a thorny coding problem, although it sometimes is difficult to just get ip and leave.

  3. Cube Escapee

    I am in Engineering of different type listed here. I have many years experience designing scientific equipment used in oil wells. This is a bit of a thinking job. Myself and many others similar need our environment to aide concentration.
    in 1990s I had my personal office. The Fortune 500 company I was at began doing away with private offices and piled up to 4 of us into a large room with nice cube walls. Pretty good still for productivity. In 1999 I went to another Fortune 500 competitor, private office again. It was one of the perks cited at that company. Within 5 yrs all buildings had gone to cube rooms. Concentration was out the door. The downfall of product quality was on.

    Today I work for a smaller company way ahead of many. We are 2 people max per office. No cubes.

    I have never understood why a company thinks it prudent to shove a bunch of people into a giant room with now paper thin cube walls. The noise level is unbearable. The common younger folks sit around with headphones on detached from the entire World.

    Progress? Not.

  4. worker bee

    In my experience, open office just isn’t. My company requires 90% of their people to be in the office 80% and only provide 50% of the needed seating so people have learned to leave things at a workstation to “reserve” it for the next day. Team end up working fat apart.

    Most workers today have never worked I a factory. My first job was in a factory and open office sinks like a factory. You have to find a spot every morning, unpack and then pack up at the end of day

  5. Productivity studies are extremely helpful to management, but observation helps. The prevalence of earphone/headphones in the open office environment make it pretty clear how the open environment works.

  6. Camille

    I am not a fan of the open office environment. I don’t think that it promotes productivity and if you want to reduce space, allow more staff to telecommute 2-3 days a week.

    • But… but… how would management be able to keep track of their minions?

      Only partially kidding. There are managers (worked for at least one) who hated working from home because they couldn’t check on whether people were beavering away. Trust… they’d heard of it but did know how to achieve it in practice.

      • Vinnie Match

        Spot on, Rick. I continue to believe that this Open Office garbage is merely the product of lazy management, overly concerned about making sure employees aren’t surfing the internet. It’s got nothing to do with “Collaboration”, since studies have proven that collaboration isn’t occurring at a greater rate in an OO environment. If anything, less collaboration occurs.

        Open Office is a dumb idea to begin with that needs to go the way of the dodo bird. Until it does, I’m only working remote jobs.

  7. Jane Doe

    Management loves open offices, as they can see what everyone is doing at a glance and personal endeavors are kept to a minimum. Even universities now are moving to open plan professor offices, which is bad for research or grading and even worse for student conferences. Let’s see – I’m not allowed to let anyone else know about the student’s education, students aren’t comfortable talking about problems in front of others, yet professors are all in a fishbowl office. Grabbing a meeting room is near impossible, since everyone is in the same circumstance. Oh, but there’s a distressed brick wall!

    • V. Match

      Exactly right, Jane Doe. Open Office is just a buzzword for Intrusive Management. I worked at a Fortune 100 company that claimed it was for “Collaboration” and “Agile work environment” but, due to the loud happy-hour atmosphere, most of the developers wore headphones and collaboration was minimal. The gameroom went unused – after all, what employee or contractor wants to be seen by upper management playing ping pong during work hours?

      • Headphones–noise-cancelling if affordable–were de rigeur in the last open office environment I worked in. Wireless headsets were handed out with the idea it would free up employees hands to type while on the phone. What actually happened is that the people who didn’t do any real work on a keyboard but spent all day on conference calls were now free to wander throughout the open space chatting away on the phone distracting people who sat far away from them. This was predicted and presented to the people in charge of creating the open office plan was it was summarily ignored.

  8. Joe Mama Doe

    “Ducking into a room to take a call is fine, but squatting to finish some work isn’t.” What happens @ Dice is what happens everywhere with open office work space: work DOESN’T get DONE. Never mind the added workplace stress of being packed together in a fish bowl and how that leads to job dissatisfaction and turnover. Somehow in this dreadful open office concept the ability to focus on a task at hand was ignored.

  9. F. Craven

    I’ve worked in both open and cube set-ups and must say I’m a fan of the open office if it’s done well with sound-dampening materials and technology (including white noise) and ample conference rooms of different sizes for group meetings and/or privacy. It tends to be more egalitarian because there are fewer private offices and, where I worked, glass office fronts. The managers with the private offices tended to be out and about. Desk spaces in the open area were arranged in groups of four facing away from each other or far enough away that screen privacy was not a problem. Wherever desks faced each other, the computer monitors were large, often in pairs, and acted as privacy screens. People were too involved in their work to be snooping on their neighbors. Anybody talking too loud for too long would be encouraged to move to a private conference room.
    I do think an open office encourages more communication.

  10. S. Mann

    Open offices are yet another barrier for people with disabilities. If you use speech recognition or text-to-speech, all of your work will be instantly audible to everyone around you. You will have even less privacy than most people.

    While barriers to speech recognition based accessibility may seem like a minor thing, speech recognition is the leading edge of user interfaces. As more and more applications become speech-enabled either on the desktop or by mobile device, open plan offices will have to deal with more and more people talking all day long in order to do their work.

  11. Silicon Valley Hi-Tech

    When my company opened a new building with a moderately more open office arrangement (5-8 people to a room, at desks facing wall), everybody who somehow could tried to move to newly vacated spaces in a crummier building, with individual desks in little rooms (made by cubicle separators, so not even that great).
    It was obvious what people voted for.
    Later I met the architect for the new building, and told him. He didn’t believe it, and told me that he was lauded by management for this great design (And also won some price).

  12. Mike Elias

    I have worked at two companies that used the open concept, the one thing I can equate it to is to having your desk in the middle of a mall. The background noise is terrible (this is why headphones have become popular) in addition to people walking by constantly. Many feel a need to say something (good morning, how are you, etc.) so while you are trying to work you are always looking up or away at movement. A very non-productive environment to work in.

  13. Northwest Tech

    The large multinational corp where I work is just adopting this layout. It is not to save money, because they threw out perfectly good furniture and placed the same number of people in my area.They and mixing people who talk all day in their jobs with heads-down technical people, so it’s not going well. The only advantage is more light.

  14. I absolutely hate the open office. I’m a senior software developer and I cannot be productive in this environment. I really miss the days in my previous company when I had my own office; so easy to be productive, not stressful at all, easy to go to someone else’s office and meet when needed and then back to your office to focus on design and coding. I looked forward to coming to work, knowing I could focus and enjoy being able to do a great job. In my open office company they must have lost tons of money due to me not being able to be as productive as I could have been; the work was no longer enjoyable because of the stress blocking me from being able to do a good job. As with any on-going stress, trying to be a developer in this sort of environment affects your psychological health, to the point that it starts to manifest as physical symptoms. I want to join a company because I’m excited to work on their tech stack and want their environment to allow me to do a good job.

    • another software developer

      WOW! Can so relate to this.. What really kills me is the stupidity of it all. Well, people will reap what they sow. Those who are able to respect and trust their employees will reap greater productivity and many other benefits, as after all no company is anything at all without its people and their work. And those who are petty low-life managers, who are probably morally impaired themselves and can see only the reflection of their own dishonesty and lack of integrity on their employees and therefore are incapable of respect and trust, will reap lower productivity and all the other problems that go along with low employee enablement and satisfaction.