The recent episode of Freakonomics covering the open office is really interesting. You should absolutely check it out in it’s entirety.
There were two things that I wanted to mention specifically. (Not to mention the studies that show how less often people in open offices actually talk to one another, or how much more productive people were working from home, because I’ve already talked about those!)
First, I found it intriguing, but not surprising, that cubicles were originally designed to deal with the problems associated with open office plans. the idea being that giving employees an area of their own, under their control, would be an ideal solution to the noise and chaos of an open office. But, of course, poor management ruined that idea, giving us cubicles that we had zero control over, and that continued to get smaller, and smaller as time went on. Thus, we all hate them, and the “solution” to them is to go back to open office spaces, without recognizing the problems associated with them.
Secondly, the latter part of the podcast talks a lot about choice. That given a choice, some employees would work from home and be perfectly good at it, while others would prefer to come into an office, and whether the space was open or not. I do believe it’s that choice, that autonomy, that is missing from many current workplaces. While employees are looking for a situation where they know what work needs to be done, and who they need to work with, and want to be left to find the best way for them to get that work done, many offices are not managed that way at all. For some that might be in an open office, for others it would not be, and sometimes it will vary depending on the task at hand. But to demand that either all work must be done under the watchful eye of the entire team in an open office, or in your cubicle burrow, under the watchful eye of management, is to send the message to your employees that there is only one way of being valued, and you either fit in with that, or you’ll be unhappy and forced out.
Of course, what is most interesting about that to me is that while we are in the midst of trying to create more diverse workplaces, we do nothing to accommodate diverse working styles. Everyone must fit in the selected environment, to offer employees choices might create some sort of unfairness, so we can;’t do that. So we only hire and encourage people who work best the way we want the office to be setup. That’s not a way to create diversity. Quite the opposite, in fact.