I really hate it when companies tell you that open workspaces foster collaboration. This insults my intelligence more than saying that employee satisfaction is a high priority in the Information Technology field. It’s not. Stop telling us a 3×3 ft. cube is better than a 4×6 ft. cube because you can see EVERYTHING now. It isn’t. Open workspaces foster nothing except higher employee density per square foot, lower costs, noise, and distraction. More lipstick on this pig will not make it less of a pig.
I would feel better if they just came out and told us the truth: it’s cheaper! I’m not dumb, I can tell why the company is buying smaller cubicle walls. Smaller walls are cheaper! I can tell why they are packing us in like sardines. Less building to maintain! (Cheaper!) Don’t tell me we are forced to listen to the intimate details of our neighbors’ intimate conversations with their doctor just because of the way we work. Don’t tell me being this close to an employee flash mob due to another employee playing Pharrell’s “Happy” is due to our need to be more collaborative. And being close to a breezeway (no more hallways because the walls are too low now) is doubly bad because everyone who goes by has to look at who they are going by at least once. No judgment going on there, just looking.
Smaller walls = more information about what is going on around you = more distraction. There’s a reason why conference rooms are usually enclosed by opaque walls: transparent walls are REALLY distracting! Also, smaller walls = less sound absorption = more distraction and more noise! Did you knew that the human brain is more attuned to picking up human speech than any other sound? Well, guess what? Your company just made human speech audible from not 10 ft., not 20 ft., not even 30 ft. away, but from 40 ft. away and beyond now! More distraction! It’s one thing to do some work at a Starbucks: you have no investment in what people are talking about there. But at work, it is tempting to obtain insight by overhearing (I.e. evesdropping) on every conversation. But here’s the catch: people don’t have in-depth conversations in an open workspace because they know everyone is listening. So guess what? Those “collaborative” conversations are now even more useless!
Blowing your nose? Your colleague 50 ft. away can now hear it. Farting? Sally at the west end of the building can now hear it (probably smell it as well, due to the lack of any wall taller than 3 ft. and drafty office space) Burping? Ted on the NEXT FLOOR can hear it (don’t laugh…if your office workspace has “natural light” between floors then you know what I’m talking about.) Moving around in a squeaky chair? Trust me, every one withint a quarter-mile is now getting annoyed by it. Everyone is now forced to deal with every nuance, every last subtle utterance either you, your environment, or your colleagues make. I don’t know about you, but I know I work at my peak when I have to ignore or filter out e-mail notifications, meeting reminders, phone calls, unsolicited visits, across-the-room questions, toilets flushing, impromptu meetings at someone’s desk a few inches away, prairie dogs (people popping over cubicle walls), loud phone conversations, burnt popcorn smells, and people constantly walking by. On top of that, I’m expected to get work done. Why would productivity possibly suffer under these conditions?
Companies have forgotten what it is like to go to the library. Hell, we have the Internet now, who needs a library? Next time you can’t seem to hear yourself think, go to a library, sit down, and observe the environment. Everyone is focused, everyone is quiet, and those people who are talking are whispering. Why? Because reading comprehension requires quiet. But more importantly, reading comprehension requires NO DISTRACTION. Imagine trying to follow a complicated set of instructions and having the toilet flush right next to you, or having to filter out a colleague talking on a speakerphone. It would become more difficult to follow those instructions, right? Why is it OK at work to have to deal with noise and distraction, but not at a library? Because the library has a fixed set of rules that have been in place since libraries were created. You don’t talk in a library. If you need to talk to someone else, you get a room and talk. Otherwise, it is “SSSHHHH!” from a scary librarian. And people are conditioned to fear the “SSSHHHH” that librarians give since they went to grade school. Tell people to observe library rules in the workplace, and after they stop laughing, they ask you, “Wait, you’re serious? This is not a library!”
Well maybe it should be. Can companies hire scary librarians to keep things quiet in the modern-day workplace? I swear, if they would, I work work for them until I retire. But until they do, I will be looking for another work-from-home job, where I can have four walls, no distractions, and if I want it, no NOISE.