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”:

Photo: Michael Moran
Photo: Michael Moran
openoffice 3
Photo: Michael Moran
Architect Clive Wilkinson. (Photo: Kevin Scanlon for The New York Times)

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.

24 thoughts on “Superdesk and open office: Bad for productivity

  1. Twisted Sifter posted about this “superdesk” thing yesterday, and included links to other “open workspace” posts from the likes of Google, Skype and Facebook. I was considering posting some of the images purely from the “visual treats” perspective.

    But the points you’ve made about the detrimental effects of working in such spaces are well made. I know this from my own experiences working in them. Although the places I worked were “open” by necessity – weather data gathering and sharing in the Air Force, and for my job as an engineering technician, where equipment was constantly being moved through and you moved from station to station depending on what test fixtures were required for the job at hand.

    Though these spaces were “open” by necessity, I’ve absolutely no doubt I’d have been a more effective worker without all the chaos.

    1. I remember working in a true open space three times. I hate to think of all the errors that got by me (proofing and editing) then. I can picture certain types of work benefiting from an open office, but not many. Extroverts might say they like open offices but I still can’t imagine they work as effectively there. And the superdesk just reminds me of an assembly line. That’s about as dehumanizing as it gets.

  2. Just a big jump backwards to the “sea of desks” days. Having worked in both environments, too much open is distracting, as you hear all the other distractions in the area, other projects, argument with wife, what I did over the weekend, and on and on and on. While some projects benefit by having all them members in one area, open beyond a small number is like trying to concentrate in the middle of the Food Court at the Mall when there are several families with screaming kids at the next tables.

    But never underestimate the power of follow the stupid leader

    1. I’ve never known management types to be smarter than the people in the trenches. This open office thing is a classic example. I say put all the managers into open office space and see how they fare.

  3. It’s cool-looking, but it would not work for me because I’m so easily distracted. However, I wonder if employers like this idea because they think it will keep workers productive and honest. I mean, they won’t be able to get on FB or write love letters if everyone else is watching!

    1. Admittedly it makes it easier to keep an eye on what employees are doing. But if you don’t trust your people any more than that, you’ve got bigger problems than office layout.

  4. When I retired from the Navy I hired on as an engineer with an aerospace battery company that had an odd culture that included having us engineers at desks in open rooms. Only a few, engineering managers, had offices and it took me about 10 years to inherit one. Meantime, although I hated it I was surprised how much could get done in that environment. I guess it’s a testament to the adaptability of human beings. One benefit, if you can call it that, is that everybody knew everyone else’s business, including who was productive and who were the slackers. It was life in a bottle. I can see that it would be even less bearable if the work were more subjective and less technical.

      1. Well, I thought I was. I was more relaxed for sure. However, not too long after I got the office something happened to improve my perspective on such things. A colleague of mine, an engineer with both engineering and marketing talents and who had been with the company his entire working career, was given a large office with a view right next to the VP of operations. I admit to feeling some jealousy at this, something I never expressed of course. He was in his 40’s and died of pancreatic cancer two years later.

        1. For the most part I think management has no clue about the things that come to be valued by employees in any work situation. A hierarchy of sorts will always develop — who is closer or farther from the door, who has a window or an office, who has the newest computer or the best parking space, etc. I don’t care how much management tries to equalize and homogenize; the little distinctions will be found and made much of. It’s just human nature to try to find the differences/privileges that set one apart or indicate rank. I think we all feel envious when a colleague gets something we wanted, especially if we thought we were more deserving, next in line, etc. Office politics at its finest (or worst).

  5. Hey….how’d you get that “like” feature on comments? You’re always way ahead of everyone else!

    And, unfortunately, many businesses don’t trust their employees. That’s why they read through their email…

  6. I worked in an open area engineering office as previously mentioned by Jim Wheeler for a number of years. I was in the nuclear power plant construction field. In our field offices not only were the desks side by side creating rows but the opposing row was butted up against the front of my row of desks. You do get use to it and ultimately are somehow or another able to filter out the ambient conversations and noise. Now granted if someone decided to get into a shouting match with a co-worker there was an issue but otherwise I think I could concentrate just as well as I could when I later made my way into offices. For me in the open area situation it was the little things that got to me like the guy across from me slurping his coffee or eating corn chips. 🙂

    1. As it happens only about two of my working years were spent in open office situations, thank goodness. I hated the lack of privacy and lack of control over my environment. I got my work done after a fashion, but remain convinced that the results were far from my best. Currently I’m hemorrhaging sympathy for my son, a developer, who will soon be moved to a brand new shiny open office. Without exception he and his colleagues seek dim light (they pull out the light bulbs in their area), no windows (no reflections or glare), quiet, no distractions or interruptions of any kind. The new office is their worst nightmare and I think demonstrates management’s colossal lack of understanding of what their work involves. (I guess I’m sounding like a mother now … )

  7. Open offices are horrible workplaces. It always has been astonishing that organizations supposedly dedicated to accuracy, and that demanded great productivity, sponsored such things as “news rooms.” I spent several years in them. This sort of work arrangement no doubt contributes to the many errors readers encounter in the media. Writers do get used to the chaos, and are able to blot out a lot of the noise that interferes with their thinking, but I never was convinced that this ability to concentrate made up for the negatives. Evidence that a “news room” is a lousy idea is that publishers and top editors always have private offices. Apparently, they did not have to be “productive.”

    1. Yes, funny how that works out. The peons sit in the open space while the bosses continue to enjoy private offices. I imagine that’s the usual arrangement. Notice that even the scale model above seems to have small offices along the perimeter.

  8. You have to consider the job that is being done in the Barbarian Group’s office. They’re in a highly collaborative, team-driven work environment. I agree this wouldn’t work for most places, but it isn’t meant to be for people in finance or jobs requiring a lot of phone answering. My guess as to those side rooms is that most are for production assistants. Creativity is collaborative, and you’ll find an open floor in many agencies, and increasingly the bosses are right there in the middle of it all, not separated in a side room.

    1. My solution would be to send those who must collaborate to conference rooms and give everyone else their privacy. I’ve been a part of that wonderful creative group synergy you describe, but it was never necessary or desirable full-time. And I have a real bias, as my work has usually demanded as much uninterrupted privacy as possible. The same is true for my son, a developer, whose employer is about to move everyone to a new, modern, open, bright workspace — exactly the opposite of what developers demand and need for maximum productivity.

      1. That’s interesting. I also have a dev background and a lot of what we were taught in school was to learn on coding together. Pairing up and collaborating helped get to solutions twice as fast and avoid mistakes. That’s the whole reason GitHub exists. I guess we come at this two different ways, because the real benefit to being in an office is the potential to collaborate and socialize while working. Otherwise, why not just work from home?

        1. They collaborate, of course, when planning and to keep everyone on course. But for the most part they’re all working on different projects. And when actually writing code, they all prefer quiet dark surroundings and solitude. My son said they even pull out all the lightbulbs in their area to reduce glare on their screens. And yes, he does work as well or better at home, where he won’t be constantly interrupted.

... and that's my two cents