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Open Work Environments Creating Open Season On Employee Morale

The New York Times is having an "a-ha" moment this week as it realizes open work environments without walls are driving employees a bit cray-cray. Talk to the hand, people, talk to the hand.

job fails - Around the office, they call this the "Party Cubicle"
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I must confess I'm not the least bit surprised as the walls come tumbling down on this workplace realization. I've made no secret of my disdain for open work environments as a stress-inducing productivity killer. Sure, open work spaces look nice, but form isn't necessarily going to help employees function better. Management thinks tearing down the walls will lead to better teamwork and higher productivity when it's actually resulting in more stressful interactions and lower morale.

Now articles are telling us how the open office floor plan is leading employees to compensate in some fascinating ways, such as listening to their iPods to drown out ambient noise and hiding behind tenuously-stacked "walls" of paperwork to block out visual distractions. Employees feel like they're constantly on stage, even when they're talking shop with a nearby co-worker from the comforts of their own desk.

Who can blame employees for feeling a bit unnerved by it all. No one wants to look up to see a co-worker eating lunch at his desk (again). No one wants festival seating to a co-worker's phone argument (again) about who was supposed to clean the litter box. No one really wants to see a co-worker's rampant desk clutter that's so bad he could definitely secure a spot on Office Hoarders: Buried Alive even though your office theoretically has a clean desk policy.

No, thanks. Sign me up for a boring, beige cubicle, please. The taller the walls, the better. The 20th-Century cube farm never looked so good.

I'm not alone in my thinking, either: UC Berkeley research finds half of employees are annoyed by the lack of "speech privacy" found in today's work environments. Say it once more with feeling so everyone can hear it across a crowded room. Tomorrow you'll finally remember to pack your iPod headphones.

So what can be done about it? Management everywhere should take the downsides into consideration as it considers quite literally taking down the walls. Just because it's new doesn't always mean it's better; just because a designer or architect says it's on trend doesn't mean you should do it. Better yet, ask employees what they want. Do they want to see and hear everyone else during every moment of the workday? The answer might make you slam the door on this idea.


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