At first, open office designs seemed like a harmless egalitarian design choice. These spacestended to feature simple privacy shields, adjustable spaces for collaboration, a space to host video conferences, and perhaps a makeshift auditorium, or place to gather for larger speeches and discussions. However, the original goal of developing a close-knit company culture while saving expenses seems to be backfiring.
All over the country, workers are going through what can be described as a crisis of privacy. Gone are the days of hanging a “do-not-disturb” sign on your office handle or cubicle to warn others that you were focusing. Now your best bet is to throw on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, or hoping you get a relatively quiet corner of the open area in which to focus. Productivity has been shown to decline in tandem with privacy.
This is a point of concern, given the explosion in popularity of open office designs over the past 20 years. In 2017, there was an open office floor plan in 70% of offices in the US. Some companies, including Netflix and Hubspot, are so open, their CEOs do not even work in private offices.
Why did open offices become popular? They set a new generation of entrepreneurs apart from their predecessors. The environments felt more equal, connected, young and energetic. They allowed for more natural lighting and fresh air.
In time, the drawbacks of their spaces are emerging. Design decisions may be made for the sake of excitement over a trend rather than genuine increased productivity. One person’s phone call can capture the attention of the entire office. Desk sizes are getting smaller to fit more people into one room. Employees are beginning to speak out against this trend. For example, when Apple Park debuted a fully open “pod design” last Fall, some employees sent emails with threats of quitting.