The open office plan: reconsidering a terrible idea

Some friends and I were talking about the new Google Building on 2000 North Shoreline Blvd. in Mountain View, California. Truth be told, we are not impressed. As one person said, it looks like a hanging tent city covered in kite (and not in a good way). But the right kicker? Another dared to hope that it would at least have done so genuine offices instead of an open office plan.

Alas, it will not. And “that’s one of the reasons I’ll never go back to the office again,” one of my friends declared. “At least I have a private office at home where I can close the door. Those days are so long gone at ‘work’. “

Personally, I think open offices are one of the many reasons behind the big resignation. The hatred they generate is actually one of the reasons so many people love the idea of ​​working from home now.

This is especially true with Omicron, which dumps us right back into the COVID-19 work blues. Remember, one of the supposed big benefits of the open office was that we could share ideas with colleagues sitting nearby. Innovation would flourish, friendships would emerge, and work would not feel like work. That is not correct. As it turns out, the easiest thing to share in an open office is viruses.


In a study from a few years ago of an open office, a harmless virus was placed on a single door. By the end of the day, almost the entire office – and bathrooms, doors and break rooms – were contaminated. It was a generic virus. Omicron’s reproduction ratio (R value) is 3.47. It is in a word “Terrible”.

No wonder, with a pandemic going on, no one wants to be wrapped up in an outdoor petri dish.

To be clear, my contempt for open offices precedes COVID-19; Open offices have always been a bad idea. Advocates of open office promise that your employees in them will be better able to collaborate with each other and form close teams. In fact, a 1984 study found that open offices would create a sense of shared mission and increase collaboration.

The reality is, as a Harvard Business Review study found, “face-to-face interactions fell by about 70% after companies switched to open offices.” Let it sink in. Open offices are not neutral. They actively discourage people from working together.

And why should they not? Every conversation becomes a public discussion. When you try to concentrate, you have Joe and Anne yacking behind you, and George does an interpretive dance about his PowerPoint problem in front of you.

Another 2013 survey showed that nearly half of the workers surveyed in open offices said the noise and lack of sound privacy was a real issue for them. I found cubicles annoying enough when I was still working in offices. The very idea of ​​being in a kindergarten with an open desk that is open springs my nerves like nails on a blackboard.

But there are other reasons why companies like the idea of ​​an open office. First, it is cheaper. Period. That is it. It also makes it easier for bosses to see people. And as Lindsey Kaufman said Washington Post, “Bosser loves the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees and ensure that secret porn, constant social media browsing and unlimited personal cell phone use do not record billing hours.”

All that outdoors gives your workers another message: They do not matter. They are replaceable and unreliable parts of a business machine – just like the compartments they sit in. This is not what you want your valued employees to think.

I am a big supporter of judging employees based on the quality of their work. I could not care how they do it. If they watch TikTok part of the time, for me it’s about the results. Making your employees uncomfortable with an open office, or spying on them by literally ignoring them or with technology, is a recipe for failure.

Give your employees the space and privacy they need to do their best work. Whether it involves traditional offices, cubicles or work from home is up to you. No matter how you do it, you will end up with more productive and happy employees.

And happier workers generally yield more successful companies.

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