Superdesk and open office: Bad for productivity
The “open office.” It’s the fad in office design these days. According to The New Yorker, some 70% of all offices today have open floor plans.
I find that horrifying. I can’t imagine anyone working productively in such an environment, if they can work at all. How does one focus, concentrate, think, when one’s coworkers occupy the same space, talk in the same space, answer phones in the same space, walk around in the same space? I used to turn my phone off so I could concentrate without interruption; in an open office, I’d have to hear everyone’s phone ring.
I don’t care what employers say or how they rationalize it or try to sell it to employees. I think there are only two reasons they adopt the idea: (1) they fall for the hype and jump on the bandwagon, and (2) cost. An open office is cheaper to put together, cheaper to light, cheaper to heat and cool. Actually, forget 1. If it weren’t cheaper, there probably would be no bandwagon in the first place.
Recently I came across a story in the The New York Times about a design that takes the open office from merely horrifying to … whatever would be a lot worse than that. Architect Clive Wilkinson has reduced the open office to a single table, the “Superdesk.” Honestly, an office with his “endless table” would be the stuff of nightmares for those who dream about work (and doesn’t everyone?).
Wilson’s concept has been adopted by the Barbarian Group, an Internet advertising company in New York. Behold, the “endless table”:
Sure, it looks very light, airy, and modern. High tech. 21st Century. But can you really imagine your “desk” at work being a seat at a table, as shown in the first photo? Despite the promise of a “paperless society,” we still have paper. And that means needing places to keep the paper, and ways to interact with the paper — file folders, pens, staples and staplers, sticky notes — and places to keep all that stuff. Sure, in theory all you need is a laptop and a table to put it on. But I seriously doubt it really works that way. There’s not even a secure place for a woman to put her purse. And no, a locker down the hall somewhere will not suffice.
So, in case you haven’t already figured it out, I reject the open office. Emphatically. And the New Yorker article backs me up, citing numerous study results that echo my thoughts and adding things that hadn’t crossed my mind:
- Open space is disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers feel distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity falls.
- Open space offices are damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.
- Interruptions by colleagues are detrimental to productivity, and the more senior the employee, the worse he or she fares.
- Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices remove that privacy and remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness.
- When workers can’t change the way that things look, adjust the lighting and temperature, or choose how to conduct meetings, spirits plummet.
- As the number of people working in a single room goes up, the number of employees who take sick leave increases.
- Office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information, and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out the office intrusion doesn’t help; even that impairs mental acuity.
- Clerical workers who are exposed to open-office noise for three hours have increased levels of epinephrine — often called adrenaline — associated with the so-called fight-or-flight response.
- People in noisy environments make fewer ergonomic adjustments than they would in private, causing increased physical strain.
- When we’re exposed to too many inputs at once — a computer screen, music, a colleague’s conversation, the ping of an instant message — our senses become overloaded, and it requires more work to achieve a given result.
It may have required formal studies to document these shortcomings, but I’ll bet your average working stiff could come up with much the same list in five minutes. For free.