Los Angeles Business Journal

Spaced Out in the Open

COMMENT By Charles Crumpley Monday, December 2, 2013

Walk into one of the startup tech companies in L.A.’s Silicon Beach and you’re likely to see young workers lined up along folding tables where they’re tapping away on laptops and chatting with one another.

It’s called the open-plan office, and we’re told that it’s all so wonderfully communal and collaborative, everyone working close together like this. And it’s all so trendy and fresh. So it’s all so great, right?

Well, no. According to an article in Fast Company recently, some new reports are coming out. They say workers generally hate open offices.

According to that article, researchers from the University of Sydney examined the “privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices” and found that the supposed benefits of faster and easier communication don’t outweigh the disadvantages, mainly the surrender of privacy and personal space.

A different report said that workers with private offices – surprise! –were far more satisfied with their work environment.

Not only are they more satisfied, but I’m sure more productive. It’s hard to be a top producer when the colleague on the left of you keeps updating everyone on her mother’s deteriorating assisted-living situation while the one on your right keeps sneezing. There’s the chap who always has a new dating exploit to explain in detail and the one who brought her dog because he’s so sick and you won’t mind helping to keep an eye on him, will you?

What do you do when you need to focus, to concentrate? Headphones have become today’s version of the office door.

Of course, this all started 20 or more years ago. Businesses began adopting modular workstations – the now ubiquitous office cubicle – which wags immediately dubbed giraffe boxes and the businesses that eagerly imported them were cube farms.

If you’re of a certain age, you may recall being told back then that these new cubicles were great. Sure, people had a little less personal space. But think of the tradeoff! You could communicate spontaneously and get so much more accomplished quickly. No more booking an appointment to ask a simple question. No more meetings where you had to brainstorm on schedule.

I recall in my old workplace that the supposed collaborative environment we were to enjoy in our new modular office immediately devolved into daylong group conversations. Grudges, office politics, romances and pranks all played out publicly and in slow motion. Worst of all: the interruptions. There was just too much collaboration. Interrupted people aren’t inventive people.

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