Open Workspaces Don’t Work

Open workspaces just prior to demolition at one of my office buildings. May 21, 2014.

Open workspaces just prior to demolition at one of my office buildings. May 21, 2014.

Although business pundits have raged about them for years now, open-plan workspaces don’t work. Rather, they don’t make it possible for others to work. At least, not efficiently.

You know of what I speak: Entire workspaces without any closed-in offices or even semiprivate workspaces (think cubicles) in favor of wide-open rooms scattered with desks, some of which may have short or glass partitions behind monitors—and some of which may not.

Given that most companies hire the best possible staff members and intend them to work efficiently and effectively, open workspaces go against their best interests—though they haven’t yet realized it, still lost in the misdirection of workplace gurus far and wide. These pundits laud the egalitarian spirit of the open workspace. They extoll the virtues of spontaneous collaboration made possible by unfettered access and the constant commingling of staff.

Noise Pollution

Studies continue to show that noise—even low-level noise—increases stress, which hampers cognitive abilities and affects health.

Students in Germany in schools situated near airports showed higher levels of stress hormones and had lower reading and memory scores. Studies indicate that mechanical noise—such as from a hospital air-conditioning unit—delays recovery in patients, probably due to stress hormones’ effect on immune systems.


In an office—unlike in a coffee shop, where you may work for long stretches relatively effectively—you know everyone in eyesight.

When with friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and frienemies, you feel tempted to interact. You have thoughts, you want to share them, and people you know sit right alongside you. Without having to expend any effort to express whatever crosses your mind, you pipe up.

And, given immediate proximity, you notice every expression flitting across your coworker's face as he types on a computer. You hear half of each phone conversation. You wonder what happened. You feel compelled to ask.


Noise pollution and temptations distract people from the tasks at hand.

Distraction may not prove a problem for quick tasks that don’t require deep thought or detail orientation. Yet when tasks need intense and prolonged focus, distraction makes both impossible.

And lest you argue that open workspaces can have quiet rooms to which people can decamp when needed, let me assure you from experience that no one will use them. Packing up everything required for a project and trucking it elsewhere in the same office for a mere few hours seems like a hassle. Also, people feel as though, by moving to another part of the building, they’ve passed comment on their coworkers: “I can’t work around you.”

Far better to return to what might seem “old fashioned:” Offices, private workspaces, and a single collaborative, café-like space for collaboration, connection, and spontaneous “water-cooler” conversations. What a relief for us all.

What type of workspace gives you the greatest productivity—and why?