The Expense of Unasked Questions

Monday, June 02, 2014

So-called open "offices" have been the rage in business architecture for quite some time, but they have always struck me as one of the most mind-numbing, hellish settings for any attempt at productive work. (I have been fortunate enough to completely avoid them.) The data bear me out, and it looks like this inane practice is finally being questioned:

The open office was originally conceived [pdf] by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow...

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers' attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation. When David Craig surveyed [pdf] some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse [he] fared. [links in original, bold added]
It is astounding to me that something premised on the idea of helping the flow of ideas would fail to start with the following obvious question: "Where are the ideas supposed to come from?"  Following that line of questioning might have averted the need to consider the enormous loss of productivity that treating ideas as if they grew on trees (or come from people cast together in a pit) has caused.

In light of this folly, it is interesting to consider what Ayn Rand had to say about focus and the value of being free from distractions:
... Thinking requires a state of full, focused awareness. The act of focusing one's consciousness is volitional. Man can focus his mind to a full, active, purposefully directed awareness of reality--or he can unfocus it and let himself drift in a semiconscious daze, merely reacting to any chance stimulus of the immediate moment, at the mercy of his undirected sensory-perceptual mechanism and of any random, associational connections it might happen to make... [bold added]
Perhaps I am wrong to be astounded: Being out of focus has been fashionable for even longer, and would preclude the ability to appreciate what being in focus can do -- or the consideration of making sure anyone else can achieve such a state.

-- CAV


Jennifer Snow said...

To a large extent it probably depends on the type of work being done and a lot of specifics OF that type of work. For instance, it seems to be very useful for people working on a big collaborative project like a computer game to all work in the same room, that way if you need somebody, they can just lean/roll over and look at your screen. But that's a single shared project with many interrelated components being worked on by many people at the same time. And even then the people who have unrelated work (like planning, organizing, etc.) tend to have their own offices.

In a more typical office where everybody has their own work, yeah, coworkers having constant access to you is annoying and distracting, not to mention having to hear it when people chitchat or otherwise do non-work-related activities.

Gus Van Horn said...

Certainly, there could be times and places for such working arrangements, as you indicate, but I think that imposing on everyone, regardless of what they are doing is ridiculous.

Borrow919 said...

This makes me wonder if the open office environment helps or hinders the various govt agencies tasked with tracking down criminals and terrorists. I watch a lot of TV shows like 24, NCIS and Covert Affairs where all the agents work in such an environment and I must assume that reflects reality.

Vigilis said...

I was dumbfounded to confront the "open cubicle" decree in the employ of a huge, private defense contractor. My duties specifically required legal confidentiality of work content, telephone conversation, interviews and related correspondence from both employee nedical and forensic standpoints.

After a ridiculous insistence I prevailed (otherwise I would have quit).

What did I learn? Bureaucracies are intentionally dumb with a purpose in mind. Those who go along to get along lose.

Realizing the game, I subsequently promoted myself to a leadership position with enviable bonus, stock options, vacation, and salary entitlements.

In other words, the corporate game is largely a putdown ruse for suckers.

Gus Van Horn said...


That's a good question. My dad was a cop and, when he worked at headquarters, he either had his own office or one or two office-mates. (I saw it once.) I suspect that most such offices are open AND that police work isn't some kind of special case that calls for such an arrangement.


Your point about confidentiality is a good one. Maybe that's why, shortly after I had to call a company with new credit card information after my number had been stolen, it was promptly stolen again.