Headphones are the new walls for people in open-plan offices

Open-plan offices are killing productivity among programmers and other knowledge workers, and making them ill. But tech companies - including Facebook and Google - are spending fortunes to build even bigger open-plan offices....

Laptop in coffee shop in Ipoh, Perak
My remote office in the OldTown kopitiam in Ipoh, Perak.... Photo: Jack Schofield
I'm writing this in a small coffee shop in Ipoh, Malaysia, which sometimes gets as noisy as the Guardian newspaper's open-plan office, which I found so unbearable that I took to wearing headphones. As Manhattan-based software entrepreneur Raj Udeshi said in a New York Times article in 2012: "Headphones are the new wall."

There are two reasons why I can easily keep my focus, despite the background noise. First, I have chosen to be here, despite trying several other Ipoh kopitiams over the past five years. Control is massively important. Second, the minimal background chatter is all in Chinese: I don't understand a word. None of it matters.

This is completely different from being forced into huge open-plan office with row after row of characterless tables where you can't even call one anonymous terminal home. It's also different from being distracted by the chatter of colleagues that might, in one case out of a thousand, be significant. It's almost impossible to stop paying some attention to the babble, which is why people resort to earplugs, headphones or some other sound-blocking strategy.

Geemarc Kiwibeat Music 101 headphones for kids
Geemarc Kiwibeat Music 101 headphones have volume settings to stay within the recommended guidelines, to protect kids' ears. They also work with adults...
Hence Matt Blodgett's recent blog post, Just wear headphones. He specifically disagrees with Raj Udeshi, but his warnings about "physical hearing damage" are, so to speak, falling on deaf ears. From the comments to the post and at Hacker News, it seems that many of us see headphones, IEMs (in-ear monitors), industrial style earmuffs or earplugs as valid responses to the noise problems that reduce our effectiveness in open-plan offices. Maybe we can't wear them all the time, for various reasons, but they can make the difference between getting work done and not.

Sadly, the problem isn't new. We've known since the 1990s that private (or semi-private) offices are by far the best way for programmers to work, as described by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister in their classic book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams. Which is not to say you don't want people interacting: you do. However, if you have a working brain, you want your tech workers interacting online via Yammer and Trello or whatever is flavour of the month nowadays.

Unfortunately, open-plan offices are still trendy, and technology companies such as Yahoo and eBay are among the worst offenders. Now Facebook has announced plans for what founder Mark Zuckerberg says "will be the largest open floor plan in the world," holding almost 3,000 engineers. (See Facebook Unveils New Campus: Will Workers Be Sick, Stressed and Dissatisfied?) Google is also planning to build a massive new campus in Mountain View that, in the words of a San Francisco Chronicle headline, "shuns walls, roofs, reality".

The usual excuse for open-plan offices is that they reduce the cost of office space, mainly by reducing the amount of space occupied by each worker. Perhaps Google and Facebook really need to save some cash by making their workers less productive, but I suspect it has more to do with ignorance, or arrogance.

There's plenty of research to consult.

For example, a 1997 study of a Canadian company's move from traditional office space to an open-plan office showed that employee satisfaction, stress levels, job performance and interpersonal relationships all suffered. Productivity fell.

A study of 42,000 office workers in 303 buildings by Professor Richard de Dear and Jungsoo Kim from Sydney University found that open-plan offices were "disruptive to productivity" because of "uncontrollable noise and loss of privacy". This large study says "our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues" and "clearly indicates [that] the disadvantages of open plan offices clearly outweigh the benefits". (The study, Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices, was published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.)

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Another survey of more than 10,000 workers across 14 countries by IPSOS and Steelcase's Workspace Futures Team showed that "85 percent of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and can't concentrate. Of those surveyed 95 percent said working privately was important to them, but only 41 percent said they could do so, and 31 percent had to leave the office to get work completed". Amusingly enough, this report - Open-plan offices can be bad for your health - appeared on the Guardian's website. It's well worth reading the original at Steelcase: The Privacy Crisis.

The Guardian blog post by Philip Landau - an employment lawyer at Landau Law Solicitors - also linked to studies that show that offices literally make people sick. See Germs Spread Fast at Work, Study Finds, and Open plan offices are a health and productivity risk - Canada Life. Basically, science shows that the more people work in one room, the more sick leave they take. Well, who would have thought it....

Not surprisingly, there's already a backlash against open plan offices, with the Financial Times offering a good round-up in Video: the welcome, belated backlash to the open-plan office (free registration required). Other examples include Open-Office Backlash: Seeking Productivity in a Noisy World and Open Office Backlash: Did Anyone Ask Employees What They Thought? and Companies Are Rethinking The Open Office, And It's About Time. There will be more.

TL/DR: open-plan offices are provably bad for your productivity, and provably bad for your health, and they don't even improve communication between workers.

We can only hope the backlash becomes strong enough to slow the trend. Unfortunately, trends are generally not susceptible to science or logic, so if you have the choice, you have to vote with your feet. Or your headphones.

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