Why We Can't Get Anything Done in an Open-Plan Office

Photograph by xPacifica/Getty Images

Yesterday I got back from a vacation on which I broke my noise-cancelling headphones, snapping off one of the ear cups when I crammed them into my suitcase. I had originally bought the headphones for trips, for blocking out the roars of jet engines (which, apparently, are deadly), snoring neighbors, and the klaxon wails of babies reacting (in a way I myself would sometimes like to) to the traumatizing experience of modern air travel. But as I was reminded upon my return, what I really use the headphones for, what I need them for, is getting anything done at work.

Like many people, I work in an open-plan office. There are rows of long shared desks, as on a bond trading floor. That means that at any one time, I am within earshot of approximately three dozen phone conversations—it would be more if one of my neighbors wasn’t a laser printer. In addition, from where I sit, there are six TV screens within my line of sight, which are usually tuned (soundlessly, thank God) to 24-hour news channels. There’s a Kurt Vonnegut short story set in a dystopian future in which everyone is supposed to be exactly equal, mentally and physically, so smart people have to wear little devices in their ears that blast horrible noises every 20 seconds to disrupt their thinking. That is how my office sometimes feels. And so yesterday I found myself groping repeatedly for the spot on my desk where the noise-canceling headphones used to sit—and breaking into a cold sweat when I couldn’t find them.

I am, it’s true, particularly sensitive in this regard. I am the boy in the bubble of audio-visual distraction—I can barely have a conversation in a bar with a television in it. It’s also true that reporters in particular have long had to deal with cacophonous, crowded workspaces—recall the courthouse press room in His Girl Friday. But as open-plan offices have proliferated in the past decade, researchers have started examining their effects, and they’ve found that I am not the only worker who finds all that openness draining.

The argument for the open-plan office is that it forces workers to talk to each other and triggers fruitful and surprising collaborations that wouldn’t have happened with everyone hunkered down inside their own four walls. A recent study that surveyed 40,000 American officer workers, however, found that those in open-plan arrangements were not only less happy with their workspace than those with private offices; those surveyed also judged that the ”benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” The authors write: “the open-plan proponents’ argument that open-plan improves morale and productivity appears to have no basis in the research literature.” This rings true for me. In fact, when I read it for the first time, I leaned back and loudly announced, to three of my colleagues trying desperately to work, “Hey guys, I just read the most interesting study about workplace distraction.” And then I made them listen to me talk about it for five minutes.

The writer Annie Murphy Paul, in her e-mail newsletter The Brilliant Report, recently summed up several research papers on what the distraction of open-plan offices can do to those subjected to them. A 2000 paper found that open-plan office noise saps people’s motivation. In the study, 40 clerical workers were subjected to three hours of simulated open-office noise, then asked to try to solve a set of puzzles (the puzzles, unbeknownst to them, had no solutions). The open-plan workers gave up on the puzzles sooner than a control group that had been spared the noise. Other research has found that, while the frequency of interactions goes up in open-plan offices, those conversations tend to be superficial, since everyone knows that other people can hear what they’re saying.

In response, some office designers are talking about “reprivatizing” the office, creating spaces where workers can, as one designer puts it, “disappear a little”—this proposal is for fleece-lined workstations. As comforting as that sounds, however, the open-plan office isn’t going away—its rise has as much to do with the cost savings associated with cramming more workers into the same space as the purported benefits of fruitful chance interactions. That leaves it to workers to figure out how to block out the noise. I guarantee I’ll have a new pair of headphones by Monday.