I worked as a counselor in an elementary school which was designed and built as an open office classroom environment. It was considered radical in the 1970’s. The idea was that teachers and students could collaborate on learning projects and with each other. The school staff, parents, and kids were excited to be part of a new progressive endeavor.
But after only a few months of the grand opening, there were many complaints. Noise levels were high and students could not concentrate and focus with all the activity taking place around them. Introverted children were particularly sensitive to the stimuli. Teachers liked the ability to easily connect with each other but complained about the impact it was having on their students Divider walls were ordered and erected.
The situation in that school in Massachusetts 40 years ago reminds me of the new open office work environments we see today.
I often hear concerns from introverted professionals about their open office environments. They say they cannot get work done and their productivity is impacted. The benefits of collaboration seem outweighed by the distraction experienced from nearby conversations. They detest the severe lack of privacy. We know that introverts are most productive with adequate quiet time and working alone. Unfortunately these conditions are often lacking in the open office environment.
We need to offer employees choices. As this recent WSJ article Open Offices Are Losing Some of Their Luster suggests, cost cutting is what drove these type of environments back into style. And as those savings are realized, the high cube walls of the 80’s have morphed into low dividers or even tables. There is a backlash. Employees are complaining.
Those same cost concerns today mean that we are not going back to private offices. And I don’t think we should. There are positives to the organic, spontaneous nature of our conversations in open space. Not everything should happen over email. Companies are finding ways to offer silence and places for quiet work by making huddle rooms available. They are also allowing people to take advantage of flexible work schedules so they can take care of projects and deep thinking outside of the office. The WSJ article suggests that in response to complaints companies are adding soundproof rooms, creating quiet zones and rearranging floor plans to appeal to employees eager to escape disruptions at their desk.
Some introverts have told me that ambient noise helps. Apps like White Noise are readily available Of course, listening to calming music has been a long-standing fix.
As I said, I wouldn’t want to see us go back to traditional offices where there was a strong tendency to isolate. I do welcome the idea of choice. Give people options throughout the day to help them connect when they need to but hunker down and focus when necessary.
I should add that it is easy for ME to give advice on this. I am currently working for myself. And as someone who works on her own, some of my choices include working at the kitchen counter, a shared incubator at Roam or a table Starbucks. Sometimes too many open workplace choices are a problem too!