Over the past few years, more and more companies have adopted open offices, where employees all work in one room rather than in separate offices or cubicles.
In fact, the great majority of U.S. offices—about 80 percent, according to The Boston Globe—are now open. But are these workplaces accomplishing their goal of fostering collaboration and teamwork?
To find out, Auckland University of Technology researcher Rachel Morrison asked 1,000 people about the layout of their offices and their work relationships.
Contrary to the goal of open offices, those who worked in them were not closer with their coworkers. In fact, they were more distracted, received less support from their supervisors, experienced more distrust, encountered more uncooperative people, and had more negative interactions at work overall.
The reports of employees working in open offices were so bleak that Morrison concluded that “if you don’t have your own space, perhaps you are better off working remotely with your cat for company.” And working from home really did score better than open offices on all the study’s measures.
Among those who worked in offices, the people with the best relationships had private offices or shared their offices with just a few people.
How could something meant to make people socialize and encourage transparency actually lead to alienation and animosity?
Morrison speculates that people are just fed up with having their coworkers around all the time without anywhere for privacy.
“Shared offices may increase employees’ use of coping strategies such as withdrawal and create a less friendly environment in a team,” she wrote in an article for The Conversation.
Other research has shown that people aren’t crazy about having their coworkers see and hear everything they’re doing.
A recent Oxford Economics report found that half of millennials wished they could work with fewer interruptions, and many took measures to block them out, like listening to music and leaving their desks.
Since there can be advantages to spontaneous work interactions, Morrison doesn’t think companies should do away with open spaces altogether.
The best of both worlds, she proposes, might be to have offices with common areas and private ones. And as for employees, it may not be a bad idea to invest in a pair of headphones—or a shelf to separate your desk from your neighbor’s.