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Popular, Not Necessarily Good

Yesterday someone told me her Fortune 50 company is moving to a 100% open office format with unassigned seating.

I have strong opinions about this, but before I share them, let’s go back to 1967.

Hermann Miller created the first cubicle in 1967 to give some privacy, noise reduction, and visual separation to open office workers. It was the compromise between giving everyone an office and having then work in a large open space.

People were less distracted by their co-workers. Phone calls didn’t double as entertainment for the procrastinator three seats down. Productivity went up when cubicles were introduced.

The cost of cubicles became a problem. Cubicles are about 3x more expensive than open office furniture, and they take up more square footage, too. But while the cost of cubicles are in the thousands lost productivity of a single worker can be measured in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

Open offices persist.

53% of workers self-report that they’re less productive once their company switches to an open office. The reason why is obvious: the cost of task switching. Whenever we stop one task and start another – like listening in to a co-worker’s conversation, or guessing who our boss is meeting with in the conference room – it takes a long time to get back into the previous state of mind. We’re less productive.

I couldn’t figure out exactly when open offices started and how they gained popularity. Surely that information exists in a book somewhere.

But it’s an idea that’s gained widespread acceptance. It’s hidden behind the veneer of buzzwords like “collaboration” or “tearing down barriers.”

For some types of work, this is a good thing. Creatives working on large teams to execute a complicated problem need access so they can solve complicated problems. That might be a benefit.

Most workers need to do some level of concentration and deep work. The open office is clearly the enemy of deep work. It’s exactly the opposite of prolonged concentration and focus.

Whatever the driver behind moving to an open office, it’s clear that it’s not a clear winner in the battle for productivity and employee satisfaction. It’s “hip” but perhaps not functional.

Hip is winning. Here’s an idea that’s gained rapid mainstream acceptance, and it flies in the face of how we do our best work.

As service providers, it’s our job to evaluate ideas, big and small, and act on the ones that will work for us and our businesses. The same is true for our clients: we must stand up and explain why a popular or status quo idea isn’t useful.

Just because an idea is popular, doesn’t make it wise.