The popular business podcast “Freakonomics Radio” recently broadcast an episode entitled, “Yes the Open Office is Terrible, But It Doesn’t Have to Be.” Much of the ground covered in the podcast will be familiar to this audience: The origins of the open office; the hatred that many workers feel for it; whether it really achieves its objective of fostering face to face communications among workers; and how to make it better.
Much of the episode centers on a discussion with Ethan S. Bernstein, associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, and Stephen Turban, a former management consultant who co-authored a paper with Bernstein, “The Impact of the Open Workspace on Human Collaboration.” That study drew a fair amount of attention when it came out last year, thanks to its conclusion that open offices produce a dramatic decrease in face to face collaboration, defeating their supposed purpose.
What struck me about this podcast, however, was a section in which Bernstein discusses what he calls the “transparency paradox,” in which a more transparent workplace produces less transparent workers. Which actually isn’t so much a paradox as it is human nature—if you think everyone’s watching you, you tend to close up. It’s a phenomenon that produces specific behaviors that hamper collaboration.
For example, Bernstein explains on the podcast, in an open office, many people feel like they’re constantly being watched—and when they feel this way, they probably want to send out nonverbal cues that will tell everyone around them that, yes, they are working, they’re a hard worker. But the nonverbal cues for “I’m working” are basically also the cues for, “Don’t bother me.” Which then will naturally discourage people from collaborating with you.
Well, fair enough, but what does a closed office door signal if not, “Don’t bother me”? And I think nowadays people respond badly to a closed office door. I’ve worked in places where some people had private offices and, in general, anyone who kept their office door closed for more than short periods of time was seen as standoffish and non-collegial.
We live in a world where, in many companies, every day is casual Friday; that term almost sounds quaint as I write it. We live in a world where honorifics are almost banished, not just from work, but from everywhere: My dad, the kindest and most generous-minded 80-year-old man I ever met, still could never quite adjust to the sound of little kids in his neighborhood calling him by his first name. But there it was. A world like this is not a world that’s necessarily congenial to the idea of individual offices.
I’ve said this before but I’ll keep hammering away at it: Everyone hates open offices for totally legitimate reasons, but what’s the alternative? When it was cubicles, people hated cubicles. Private offices? Sure if you’re one of the lucky workers who gets one—but what if you’re not?
As Ethan Bernstein notes in the Freakonomics podcast, if you’re not blessed with physical walls, you put up virtual ones. Maybe the first step in dealing with whatever the open office is destined to be, is for companies, in keeping with Bernstein’s data, to quit pretending that the concept has a benefit – increased collaboration—that it doesn’t have. Then we can focus on figuring out what might work.
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