Too Distracted to Work: The Dark Side of Open Offices

Photograph by Gallery Stock

Ask small business owners about open offices and you’ll hear dreamy musings about plant-covered walls, Ping-Pong tables, natural light, and something called “work-jamming.”

What you don’t hear so much in the breathless descriptions of 21st century workspaces: the grumbling from employees who can’t focus on their jobs because of all the distractions. Or the stories of workers who retreat to home offices to escape all the creativity and fun—so they can get some work done.

That’s what happened to Carolyn Smuts, a self-described “uptight, stick-in-the-mud” marketing director for NEAD App Development. In 2010 the tech company moved into a Huntington Beach (Calif.) warehouse decorated with life-size Darth Vader cut-outs and outfitted with a basketball court and wall-to-wall whiteboards. A surfboard manufacturer was next door.

“I worked out of there two weeks solid and got done half of what I would have accomplished at home,” says Smuts. “Even trying to answer e-mails there, somebody would hit me in the back of the head with a Nerf dart.” She started working from home more, where she didn’t have to share a desk “with people’s Stormtrooper action figures,” she says. Smuts, 40, wonders whether her reaction reflects a generational gap: The younger employees seemed to love the hip office.

Founder and Chief Executive Officer T.J. Sokoll loved the price. Instead of leasing a cramped office for $2.50 per square foot, he got 4,000 square feet of industrial space at 69 cents a square foot. The vaulted ceilings and rooftop meetings appealed to clients, investors, and interns. “It was like we were Google,” Sokoll says.

The fun didn’t last long. The company had grown too fast and went back to a small office a year ago after reducing staff from 20 to eight. Employees sometimes work from home, and the company rents conference rooms for meetings or uses Google Hangouts to communicate. While he misses the chair races, “our productivity level is way up,” Sokoll admits.

Balancing the promise of creative office space with the need to get work done isn’t easy, says Elizabeth Dukes, a co-founder of iOffice, a Houston company that provides software and consulting for facility managers. Her new book, Wide Open Workspace, chronicles the evolution of the American office from the cubicle farms satirized in movies such as Office Space to the open plans that have become de rigueur in Silicon Valley.

Even her business has struggled to get it right. IOffice revamped a 7,000-square-foot, 1920s-era printing press building, leaving it completely open to foster collaboration and serendipitous encounters among staff. The arrangement saves on rent and allows the company to tout a greener footprint, Dukes notes.

Yet 25 employees—plus their dogs—packed into one big room can get chaotic. The company converted two closets into quiet rooms with soundproofing material on the walls and shower doors. Employees can also work from home, a library, or a coffee shop. “Some employees need that head-down type of quiet place they can reserve for phone calls or certain kinds of work,” Dukes says.

When Mint Advertising, a 17-employee agency based in Clinton, N.J., switched to an open-office plan in late 2012, content strategist Carrie Baczewski was concerned. She’d worked in an open office at a New York City agency without assigned workspaces. She worried about colds and flu spreading rapidly and lost productivity. And she didn’t like that her workplace “felt like a factory. You were basically sharing a desk with a person who you may not have even met before. That was unsettling,” she says.

Mint’s co-founder and chief creative officer, Al Navarro, allayed some fears by giving each employee her own large desk and providing quiet conference rooms. He says most people have been happy. “People use headphones as walls, so now there’s some etiquette that’s developed around not disturbing people when they have their headphones on,” he says.

Productivity concerns aside, it’s hard to argue with the aesthetic appeal of an open floor plan. When the Goshen (Ind.) Chamber of Commerce set up a new co-working space in an abandoned insurance office in 2012, it struggled to attract tenants with a corporate look and feel.

Things changed when Grace Bonewitz, a partner at boutique advertising agency Eyedart Creative Studio, moved her employees in last November, on the condition that she have free rein over an office redesign. She took out cubicles and added couches, a coffee bar, and lots of plants. Now there are 13 startups sharing the space, including a furniture maker, software developers and website designers, and a boutique magazine publisher. “The space was dull and lifeless,” Bonewitz says. “Once we breathed some life into it, members came quickly.” One can only hope they leave the Nerf guns at home.

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