It’s hard to collaborate with someone who is desperate to avoid you

by Edward Cone

Look around your open-plan office. If you don’t see that one person known for talking too much over those pathetic little dividers, it’s probably you. (It’s definitely me.)

Chatterboxes are only one hazard of the cube farm. I once sat near a woman who coped with the lack of physical boundaries by erasing any boundaries of her own, inflicting high-decibel phone calls about her (allegedly) personal life on everyone else in the room. It was disruptive with a side order of mortifying.

now i need some tomato soupAnd all those collaborative conversations that open plan is supposed to spark? They’re distracting, too – when they happen at all, which they often don’t, because people desperate to escape constant or episodic noise are colonizing meeting rooms, taking walks outside, and retreating into earbud cocoons (my rainy-day sounds app is an effective insulator, but it always makes me crave tomato soup).

So, anyway, a lot of people dislike open-plan offices. I guess they’re popular with CFOs, but our research on workplace noise and the disconnect between executive assumptions and employee realities makes me wonder if the bosses are doing all the math. Are savings on square footage worth the drain on productivity and morale? Would relatively modest investments in better office design and noise-mitigation strategies make open-plan pay off?

People don’t come to work for free food or rec-room diversions. They come to get stuff done, and although they value collaboration the thing they want most is the ability to focus and work without interruptions (despite stereotypes, this is especially true of Millennials).

If your office environment makes it hard to do your job, then the people in charge of space planning are not doing theirs. 

Edward Cone is the deputy director of Thought Leadership for Oxford Economics