The Coronavirus May Do What Common Sense Couldn’t: Get Rid of Crazy “Open” Office Plans

John Hollon Culture, Driving Productivity, Organizational Development

Way back in 2012, The New York Times dug into a big workplace problem that a lot of people were having with the lack of privacy in open offices.

You might have experienced it first-hand, because It was a growing trend that seemed to be springing up everywhere — no matter how silly, dumb, and unproductive it happened to be.

The Times succinctly described the issue like this:

“The original rationale for the open-plan office, aside from saving space and money, was to foster communication among workers, the better to coax them to collaborate and innovate. But it turned out that too much communication sometimes had the opposite effect: a loss of privacy, plus the urgent desire to throttle one’s neighbor.”

I was one of those people who wanted to “throttle one’s neighbor” at the time, and at one point, I even thought about throttling a (now) former boss. He had his own private office, of course, but was totally oblivious to how hard it was for  the rest of us minions, who didn’t, to get work done or have private conversations in an “open” workspace.

Forget the goal of packing workers together

The open office problem is one that I wrote about a number of times over at, and in 2012 I said that, “Yes, I appreciate the collaborative aspects of open offices, but the one size-fits-all approach like the one my former employer came up with fails to recognize a big fault with the open office philosophy: not everyone has the same job, the same needs, or even works the same.”

Fast forward eight years to May 2020 and The New York Times is writing about open offices once again, but this time, with a little different twist. Now, it’s about how the coronavirus lockdown has pretty much destroyed the notion of the open, office and packing office workers so closely together.

This month, in a story titled The Pandemic May Mean the End of the Open-Floor Officethe newspaper makes the case that people who actually return to an office environment may find it very different from the one they left just a few months ago, one where the biggest “perk” is a sneeze guard.

Here’s the essence of their argument:

“The conversation about how to reconfigure the American workplace is taking place throughout the business world, from small start-ups to giant Wall Street firms. The design and furniture companies that have been hired for the makeovers say the virus may even be tilting workplaces back toward a concept they had been moving away from since the Mad Men era: privacy.

The question is whether any of the changes being contemplated will actually result in safer workplaces. … (and most) disease experts say that a virus-free office environment is a pipe dream.

Dr. Rajneesh Behal, an internal medicine physician and the chief quality officer of One Medical, a primary-care chain that recently held a webinar for businesses on how to reopen, said, “A core message is, do not expect your risk goes down to zero.”

Can coronavirus be killing the “open” office?

Here’s my take: Is it possible that the coronavirus can do what so many complaining employees couldn’t — kill the terrible concept of open office floor plans once and for all?

As The Times also notes, getting rid of the open office “is a concept that runs counter to the workplace zeitgeist of the past two decades. The embrace of open floor plans stretches back to the first dot-com boom in the late 1990s. It was hailed as essential to collaboration and creativity, but is, of course, also about cramming more people into expensive office space, a situation that people now realize creates unnerving petri-dish conditions.”

I was a VP at one of those first San Francisco dot-com boom companies in the late 1990s, so I can attest to the fact that you can get a lot more “collaboration and creativity” when people are working close together.

But when you plug a person who really needs a closed-door office into an open environment, do you know what you get? A person who is a lot less productive because they have been dropped into a space not particularly conductive to operating efficiently.

Open offices can be great, but in my experience, they can also reduce productivity and make for noisy workspaces where everyone is hungering for a little privacy now and then.

Add in a host of HR issues that flow out of trying to manage this kind of office space, and what you get is trendy workplace design that needs to be tempered by a little workplace reality.

Well, we’re getting a big dose of workplace reality today … courtesy of the coronavirus. 

Count me in as one of those who believes that getting rid of open work spaces is one of the very few good things to come out of this global lockdown.