The Changing Workscape: Causing a Commotion, the Misery of the Open Office, Another Reason to Telecommute


One of the reasons that I feel a desperate need to work from home is the trend almost every corporation has embraced – the open-office landscape. I have been loving (sense the sarcasm!) how managerial types stand up in front of their workforce and announce smugly how much creativity and interaction is enabled by opening up the office and throwing us all into a big fishbowl together. (They say this, smiling, as they shut their private office doors behind them.)

In my last job, a new manager for our team was brought in during a reorganization – he insisted on putting all of us (about ten people) in one big open room. I think every last one of us voiced an objection to this, and he nodded condescendingly, claiming that he understood. Nothing more than a cursory, “Yeah yeah yeah…”. Because ten against one or not, it was, as Patrick Swayze said in the godawful film, Road House, “…my way or the highway.”

No one was happy with the arrangement, particularly because this manager felt like he could play 1970s Nigerian music to inspire the whole room. He would force creative brainstorming sessions that lasted for ages – and most of us had either to concentrate (since I research and write) or to produce (it was a creative department producing the website or print materials). Brainstorming is for some other time. Not the middle of a workday. His ideas to revolutionize the place didn’t work, and he left. But the open office remained until the whole company moved to a new office, which was basically ALL open offices with 100 people on each open floor. (At least in the old office I had started working from home most of the time, and an intern stole my desk in the open-office floorplan, so if I did come to office, I just found an empty space and worked in it.)

In the place I work now, it’s the same sort of thing – an open floorplan. My department’s desks are all right along one of the corridors near where people enter and exit and where there are a bunch of meeting rooms, so there is a lot of conversation, a lot of potential for interruption. And strangely, there are a lot of weird politics around the placement and use of desks. Apparently one desk in our area was “off-limits” because someone senior to the majority of us wanted it. There is a large contingent of people who travel into the global HQ once a week but are in the office physically rather unpredictably, so with space being tight, the company decided to cut the lunch/kitchen area in half and create “hot desks” for these “remote” workers, all of whom seem miffed about not having permanent desks any longer.

For me, it feels like a company should make a move one way or the other. If a company insists on going open-office for the “collaborative boost” it supposedly provides (studies show that it doesn’t), they should be open to greater flexibility overall. Given that the move to open offices is more about corralling more people into a smaller space (thereby saving money), at least let the cattle graze away from “home” – if you really want to save money, also embrace letting them work where they want to work and work where it’s most comfortable and productive for them as much as they want to. If that is in the office, great. If that’s at a coffee shop, great. If that’s at home, as it is for me, even better. As illustrated in my previous articles on remote work, companies adopting this kind of flexibility can save a lot of money on real estate and other associated costs. Be revolutionary – don’t let anyone settle into too much of a pattern. Make your whole open office into hot desks so no one actually has their own “desk” if it is going to be such an issue.

A recent New Yorker article highlights several of the ill-effect of the open-landscape office. The article illustrates University of Calgary research that determined employees placed in an open environment suffered. They felt disrupted, stressed and felt that the environment was “cumbersome”. Instead of being closer, the office workers felt “distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.””

In essence, an overview of studies about the office environment declared that the talk of “unified corporate mission” that happens with open office structures is largely symbolic and all talk. The reality shows that damage is done. Other than the increased stress and anxiety, the open office – bottom line – comes down to the commotion and noise. This is distracting and also has actual health effects (Cornell University found that office noise led to increased levels of epinephrine, which creates a fight-or-flight responses that causes people to compensate for the stress with ergonomic adjustments, creating more physical strain.