Open Work Spaces Considered Harmful

Arguably the best moment of my career was reaching Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Labs. The award was given during a fancy ceremony, and my wife got a pretty corsage and a bonus check. But what was the real gift that came with this wonderful award? What did the greatest American tech company of all time – the one that brought us lasers, and transistors, and Unix – consider a suitable award? Well, they gave me a private office.

Since that award in 1990, my physical office situation has varied dramatically. When I became an officer at AT&T, my new mahogany digs were rich enough to make a New York cardiologist blush. At one point, I even had a Matt Lauer-type magnetic button that closed the door. (I had it removed.) I can remember many a time when closing that door to my private office allowed me to recharge, or let off steam, or think up a good idea, or whatever.

But I’ve also experienced the other end of the spectrum, post mahogany. Today, I drop my backpack into an open-space room filled with twenty-somethings. This open arrangement carries the presumed advantage of cooperation, but it is also ridiculously non-private. I can't bring visitors in for quiet chats, and I can't decorate my space with things I find inspiring. And this idea of super cooperation seems odd when everyone is wearing headphones.

Here is the truth: Open work spaces are pushed by finance teams to save money. They’ll swear on a bible that it drives team cooperation, but I think this is total nonsense. Finance teams force us to sit in open spaces to save money, and this crazy line that casual openness is the best possible work arrangement is based on bad evidence and anecdotal arguments. Let’s go through the litany of falsehoods regarding open work spaces:

Relationship Building – The first argument is that stuffing people on top of each other will foster relationships. And yea – I guess that’s true, but not all these relationships will be good ones. Think of the most annoyingly grating person you know at work – and now situate that person directly across from you every minute, of every day, of every week. It’s that same nemesis face, every day, staring you down. How’s that sound to you?

Improved Cooperation – The second argument is that putting people in an open pit improves cooperation. Colorful B-roll images show a well-dressed worker gliding a modern chair back from a shared table and then leaning toward an intensely focused co-worker to collaborate on an issue. The truth is that the only cooperation in open space involves a co-worker’s grudgingly agreeing to stop putting hot coffee three inches from your computer.

Better Employee Health – I found several articles on the (prestigious) Internet suggesting that employees would experience better health working in open spaces. Now, I’m no doctor, but as a parent of former third-graders, I can tell you that when someone catches cold in a bullpen, everyone sneezes. And yes, some people bring with them some unusual personal odors, and this can be an enormous issue at work. (Admit it, you know this is true.)

My advice to modern business is that instead of building open work spaces, we should be building communities. This can work just like my Grandma's family life on old Garside Street in Newark: Everyone had their private little place, but everyone also lived in a shared space (aka the neighborhood). Cooperation was fostered by shared events, and the forced proximity of each other’s homes. You had some privacy, and you also had some community.

The picture at the top of this article shows the old Bell Labs building in Holmdel, New Jersey. That place was organized during its heyday around offices arranged in community hallways, located in sections of buildings that corresponded to topical departments. When you stepped out of an office, you could see the whole complex. It worked well then, and it still works today in places like the Applied Physics Laboratory where offices prevail.

Now I can hear your cost-conscious manager protesting my points: Give people old-fashioned private offices, goes their argument, and they will hide behind closed doors. Well, I can tell you that as a resident of a WeWork in Manhattan, everyone scrambles to hide in these little teeny phone booths to gain privacy. They scamper from their vast open spaces to hide in closed linen closets to get decent work done. It’s an amazing thing to watch.

My view is that the optimal work arrangement involves shared and private offices arranged around an open community space. People should have a place they call their own, where they can express their personality, as well as to occasionally vent – but when they step out of their office, it should be into a shared space. This is how it worked in back in the Italian neighborhoods of Newark, and it is how things should work today in your company.

Oh, and as for the TAG Cyber team? Well, I have explained to them that when we grow to sufficient size, we will move to a shared space – hopefully, a building in lower Manhattan, where everyone has a private place, but everyone also shares an open common space. Until then, we will stuff ourselves together into our open room, and I will continue to go find WeWork phone booths to speak with clients. Or to vent. Or to just fart, for crying out loud.

How about you forward this article to your management and start the debate? Let us know how it turns out.