More Evidence That Open Offices Make People Less Social

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Photo: Haywood Magee/Getty Images

When a friend started a new job where she actually had her own office, everybody else was aghast and intrigued. Like, with a door? That people knock on? And What do you do all day? Does it get lonely? Aside from sending more direct messages on Twitter, the Friend With the Office seemed psychologically stable within her isolation, you might even say professionally thriving. Which brings to bear one of the great myths that boomers sold to millennials: Hey kids, you don’t want a fuddy-duddy office of your own — do work in an Open Office; there will be spontaneous collaboration, cross-departmental innovation, and other instances of feel-good management jargon.

Though some 80 percent of American offices are now open — no doors, low or no partitions, lots of colleagues in view — the research around open offices is less than promising. (To borrow from a Boston Globe headline, “Open offices seem great — until you work in one.”) The latest data comes from Auckland University of Technology researcher Rachel Morrison, who wrote about her work for the Conversation. She and her team surveyed 1,000 fully employed Australians, and results suggest that people who work in open-office plans had worse co-worker friendships than people who had private or shared offices. The open-office friendships were even worse than for those people who spent most of their time on the road or working from home.

While greater proximity promotes greater friendship, too much proximity can backfire, Morrison says, consistent with previous research. One possible reason: When people start to feel overwhelmed by their office layout, they may withdraw into their headphones. (After all, everybody has their own optimal level of stimulation, so being your own private island of Spotify within the scrum of the workday can be a form of self-care). And while open offices are purported to make people more social, they may inhibit the formation of relationships. Like Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, once told me, the way you form friendships is by exchanging confidences, something you’re not likely to do when dozens of your colleagues are within earshot. Still, it’s not like open offices are going anywhere: Beyond their promises of collaboration, open offices are way cheaper than traditional layouts. In the meantime, you might want to invest in that Spotify Premium subscription.

More Evidence That Open Offices Make People Less Social