For years we’ve gotten the occasional article forwarded to us or dropped into our social media feed: “Science now shows X (chocolate, red wine, coffee) does Y (makes you invincible, smarter, live longer)!” Except that some months later, “science” manages to “prove” exactly the contrary. The problem is the methodology. Researchers often chase headlines and don’t look at a large enough sample size to draw solid conclusions. Even if they do, making broad generalizations about something like open offices, which is only one part of a revolution in the way we work, isn’t helpful. It’s actually part of the problem.
How We Work Now
Even ten years ago it would not have been normal to walk into a coffee shop or similar establishment and see a handful of people pounding away on laptops or carrying on quiet (or alas, sometimes not so quiet) phone conversations. Now it’s a norm. Beyond that, we even have an entire industry with major players like WeWork that provide private spaces for these freelancers and business owners. They don’t have to sit in a cafe and deal with temptations to eat delicious baked goods all day: they can go someplace where they are “normal” and outsiders aren’t allowed in. They can find community even as a lone worker.
Cubicles were ridiculed by films like Office Space and comic strips like Dilbert not because they were so great (they weren’t!) but because they were the final absurd stop on the scientific management trail that first started with Frederick Taylor that saw human beings simply as cogs in a machine. The cubicle was, like a cattle pen, where you put workers. Cubicles have disappeared not just because they are reviled for their cold inhumanity, but because the very nature of work has changed. Full-time work in lifelong careers is a charming relic of yesteryear, and many people have decided that quality of life is their most important value, and are willing to accept the uncertainty and variable income that comes with freelancing or starting your own firm. Messaging technologies like Slack are changing the way we communicate with our teams and make distributed remote teams a reality of today, not a promise of the future. At VocaWorks we are playing our own part in this revolution of jobs, by giving both employers and workers one more possibility among the unfolding possibilities that lie ahead of us.
So, once we admit that the very nature of work is rapidly changing (and will continue to), we can then look at the Open Office debate in relation to what matters the most, which is not what “science says” but what is true for our own situation, whether we are running a business or simply running ourselves.
Open Office Pros
For employers the biggest pro is cost savings. There are no walls to build or cubicle fixtures to buy, and chair and desk purchases are now shared instead of being allocated for each individual.
There’s also the prospect of change. We often will remember where we sat the first day of class when we didn’t have assigned seating. What we perhaps didn’t know is that statistically we were more than 80% likely to sit in the exact same place the next day, and for the rest of the term/semester/class. There’s something within us that craves stability. And yet, we know that taking a different way home (or to work) or trying something we haven’t before is precisely what can spur a great idea or inspiration. Open offices force this to happen more frequently by taking away the stability that cubicles and private offices delivered.
There’s also the opportunity for more collaboration and conversation. Without walls you necessarily have more chances to interact (for better or worse) or overhear conversations in which you can observe how a situation is handled without necessarily being directly involved.
Open Office Cons
But, overhearing conversations can be a bad thing too, especially if the matter is private. But there’s no law prohibiting open office plans from including spaces for confidential conversations. So, while some might complain that open offices can increase distraction via noise, etc., solutions like private spaces or noise cancelling headphones would indicate the problem is not as dire as we might be led to believe.
You may also have to carry your “office on your back” in spaces that don’t provide for permanent staging – but again, there’s no law against open office spaces providing lockers or some other spaces where everyday office needs can be staged instead of accompanying you around town.
In presenting solutions to these cons we aren’t trying to exculpate open offices of their challenges – but we are pointing out that this is a new way of working for a new type of work. There were actually open offices as early as the late 1930s, when Frank Lloyd Wright designed such a space for the Johnson Wax Company. But it was an idea that was perhaps before its time, before messaging technology, the internet, and remote workers. The open office now will continue to evolve and like any innovation, it will take some time to find its level. Or, it might be replaced by new technology as VR and AI mature.
What Matters Is You
Ultimately, it matters little what “studies show” but rather what you need. Studies show that firefighters have dangerous jobs, and yet people still line up to save lives. What are your needs as a freelancer or sole proprietor? Do you prefer to work at home or a coffee shop? At a coworking space or in a private office? Only you know – and that knowledge, not “science” or “research” is what matters.
It’s the same if you are managing a team or a company. What matters for the type of work you are trying to accomplish? What do your employees tell you? Are there complaints that are unaddressable in your current office configuration? Then change it. Are there desires from your staff that your current office configuration can’t address? Then change it. The point is that there’s no excuse, given the flexibility of technology and the changing configuration of work itself, to not find the best solution for your team.
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Stephen writes about startups, hiring and career issues for VocaWorks.