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Readers sound off on problems of open offices
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I'm not the only one who sees downsides to the trend that has many of us working in offices with open floor plans. Many readers also struggle with the noise and distractions that accompany such work spaces. - photo by Greg Kratz
Continuing construction at my workplace brought a new challenge last week: cold!

The chilly temperatures we've experienced translated into a frigid office, as our builders apparently had doors open more than usual in the expansion area. As a result, many of my colleagues wore hats, scarves and parkas as they worked.

It was easy to see all that winter gear because I work in an open office, as I mentioned in a column last month. And based on the response to that piece, I'm not the only one who sees downsides to the trend that has many of us working in open (and, for me lately, cold) spaces.

One woman wrote in an email that she sells the low-walled cubicles common to open offices. She said the airy style looks great, but she "cannot function with constant distractions."

"As a commercial interior designer myself, I will always follow what the client wants," she wrote in her email. "Many times I propose higher, frosted glass-topped panels, mostly because it helps keep down the noise and distractions. That way you still get good light through the glass AND maintain some semblance of privacy."

She added that the first order of any good design is function, which means designers should talk to people who will use a particular space and ask about their needs.

"That conversation should be shared with the powers that be to allow for a more productive space," she wrote. "I always consult all involved, but nowadays decisions are made by many that never take the employee needs into consideration."

That's definitely part of the problem, and it's a concern that was echoed in an email from a reader named Donald.

"I work in an open office. I dont like it," he wrote. "I and many others use Bose noise-blocking headphones to be productive, which is bizarre as they block everything, including the supposed 'collaborative' benefits.

"It seems the open office is a trend selected top-down by extroverts (managers with offices) for introverts. It seems to be an architectural movement based on aesthetics and up-front costs rather than long-term usability and long-term productivity."

Another reader, Bob, sent an email in which he voiced similar concerns.

"I was the first one to choose a low-walled cubicle in our new area, and I purposely chose the only one that faced away from everyone else (in a previous area, I was staring at a co-worker, and it drove me nuts)," Bob wrote. "But even now its a tough go the worker who sits behind me has a booming voice and is on the phone often in the day. Very distracting. There are several of us who wear headphones more often than wed like, and its not just for music.

"I do like the extra light that you get in a low-walled setup, but the extra noise and distraction more than negates that benefit."

Another reader gave me a copy of an email he had sent to a prospective employer shortly after interviewing at the company. In that letter, he wrote that the organization's open floor plan was the deal-breaker that prevented him from accepting a job.

After citing articles on the problems that come with open offices, he wrote about the frustration felt by programmers, IT people and "anyone with an engineering mind" when productivity is limited.

"To the engineer mind, productivity is a moral imperative," he wrote. "Productivity means happiness. When an engineer is asked to be less productive, restrict productivity, or put in an environment where productivity will be hindered, only unhappiness and rebellion will result.

"Open floor plans diminish productivity. Engineer minds achieve happiness from productivity, while diminished productivity causes unhappiness. Therefore, open floor plans cause engineer unhappiness."

Going beyond the missive he wrote to that company, this reader told me he prefers cubicles with high walls.

"The most irritating thing I've ever dealt with is having people spontaneously looking over my shoulder," he wrote. "High cubicles impede this practice. Low-walled cubicles only serve to establish boundaries between your neighbors in my humble opinion."

It is disconcerting when you're typing away on your keyboard, only to suddenly sense that someone is watching you. Low-walled cubicles are often the culprit when that happens.

Several readers also left comments online, remarking on the challenges of open floor plans. One wrote that he had worked in both cubicles and private offices.

"I currently have a private office with glass walls," he wrote. "I like this because I can see what is going on, but I still have privacy without all the noise. If someone needs me they can just wave at me and get my attention, but I can still close my door if I need to. The worst work environment is a completely open workspace (no walls or cubicles). There is no privacy, and too much noise and commotion."

Another person posted a comment online to say that open workspaces can drive better collaboration, but that isn't always paramount.

"You can be so distracted by noise and movements at work that you have to work at home (which presents its own possible distractions, too)," this reader wrote. "Some people won't be focused given the privacy of an office while others are very distracted and disruptive in an open workspace. So the challenge is finding the right balance at the right times and for different teams, phases and functions.

"The answer is not no walls for everyone always, nor is it private offices or remote work; it varies and needs to be understood and properly applied."

Or, as another reader wrote: "Open is good for creativity or collaborative or project work. Private is good for productivity when working through tasks."

That makes sense to me, but it also means I'll need both a cubicle and an office to make my job ideal. I guess it's a good thing we're adding more space!