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The open-plan office hijacks your brain

Having too much connection with your co-workers can produce mediocrity.

Open plans like this have come to dominate many offices, partly because they're cheaper. But they're not necessarily great for creative work.mooshny - Fotolia

Remember the office? For many of us, the pre-pandemic workplace assumed a particular form: an open-plan space featuring few partitions, where we worked, or tried to work, as others tapped and talked around us. The office resembled nothing so much as a bustling coffee shop, and this was no accident: The coffee shop, a place where people have serendipitous encounters and spontaneous conversations, was the space on which influential thinkers believed the modern office should be modeled.

Writer Steven Johnson, for example — author of books like “Where Good Ideas Come From” — has argued that these buzzy gathering places “fertilized countless Enlightenment-era innovations; everything from the science of electricity to the insurance industry to democracy itself.” New ideas, he maintained, arise out of “the collisions that happen when different fields of expertise converge in some shared physical or intellectual space.” Leaders and managers seized on this notion. Get people to “collide” with one another, the thinking went, and magic will happen. How better to promote collisions than to remove the physical barriers that would keep them from happening? (The fact that open-plan spaces are cheaper than enclosed offices also helps explain the trend.) Before the pandemic, roughly three-fourths of American office workers labored in open-plan configurations.


But the coffee shop was always a terrible model for a place in which complex, cognitively demanding work is to be carried out. That’s because the conditions created by the open-plan workspace are in direct conflict with the unalterable realities of human biology. The brain evolved to continually monitor its immediate environment — to be, in effect, distractible, lest nearby sounds or movements signal a danger to be avoided or an opportunity to be seized. And organizational environments are full of the kind of stimuli that distract us the most: We are attuned to human movement and activity, to the sound of people’s speech, and to the nuances of social interactions.

In addition, the coffee shop is by design a generic space, intended for temporary use. A customer occupies a table for a few minutes or hours and then turns it over for the next customer to use. This feature, too, is far from ideal when applied to a workplace to which employees return day after day. Research has demonstrated that a sense of ownership and control over one’s personal space, along with the display of photos and other cues of identity and affiliation meaningful to their owner, help people work more efficiently and productively.


History gave us the model of the coffeehouse, but it has other models to offer. The disruption introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to examine whether an alternative might better fit our needs.

For example: the ancient monastery. In the popular imagination, monks are solitary, hermit-like creatures — but historically they have lived within a communal setting that balanced time spent alone in study and contemplation with time spent with others in robust social interaction. Richard Irvine, an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, explored this equilibrium in an ethnographic study he conducted at Downside Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Somerset, England, where the way of life has remained little changed for centuries.

In describing the abbey’s architecture, Irvine observes that the buildings reflect their inhabitants’ daily cycles of intense engagement and hushed withdrawal, accommodating communal spaces like the library, the refectory, the workshop, and the courtyard, as well as the monks’ solitary cells. “While the monastery is the site of frequent interpersonal encounter, the importance of solitude is also structured into the timetable through the commitment to twice-daily private prayer, as well as the summum silentium (complete silence, sometimes referred to as ‘the great silence’) at the end of the day,” Irvine explains. This silence “restricts interaction and gives the monk opportunity to be alone.” (He notes that members of the community have available to them another way of limiting interaction: They can pull up the hood of their vestment, making them “less inclined to distraction from other people.”)


The monks of Downside Abbey could be said to be practicing what present-day organizational scientists call “intermittent collaboration.” Research has demonstrated that complex problem-solving tends to proceed in two stages, the first of which entails gathering the facts we need to clarify the nature of the problem and begin constructing a solution. In this stage, communication and collaboration are essential. But there is a second phase, equally vital: the process of generating and developing solutions and figuring out which of these solutions is best. During this phase, studies find, excessive collaboration is actually detrimental.

The reason can be found in our nature as a group-dwelling species. We are exquisitely sensitive to social pressure, easily drawn into consensus and conformity. When we’re constantly in touch with others, we all end up gravitating toward the same pretty-good-but-not-great answers. Research finds that people who keep lines of communication perpetually open consistently generate middling solutions — nothing terrible, but nothing exceptional either. Meanwhile, people who isolate themselves during the solution-generation phase tend to come up with a few truly extraordinary solutions — along with a lot of losers. The best of all worlds is enjoyed by those who engage in cycles of sociable interaction and quiet focus: a process that could be facilitated by the physical spaces in which we work.


Another promising model drawn from history can be viewed today at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This is a tiny gem of a room, re-creating a space in 15th-century Perugia: the studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino. Federico, whose title called on him to be variously a royal, a politician, and a warrior, lived in the town of Gubbio in what is now central Italy. The walls of the study allowed the duke, a lover of literature, architecture, and mathematics, to retreat into quiet study and contemplation, away from the company of the townspeople he ruled.

And because his studiolo was constructed in Renaissance Italy, these were no ordinary walls. Craftsmen from Siena, Florence, and Naples created elaborate trompe l’oeil murals made entirely of inlaid wood — a technique called intarsia. In slivers of rosewood, oak, and beech, these designs depict in precise detail (and in linear perspective, a then newly invented technique) simulated cabinets full of precious objects — each one a symbol of what the duke most admired and to which he most aspired. A lute and a harp showed he was a man of culture; a mace and a pair of spurs represented his skill in battle; a bound volume of Virgil’s “Aeneid” was a sign of his erudition. Incorporated into every corner of the space were mottos and motifs that represented the duke’s personal, familial, and regional identity.


Such self-referential images and messages are not mere decorations — whether they’re built into the paneling of a duke’s splendidly outfitted retreat or tacked to the walls of an office worker’s cubicle. Research shows that in the presence of cues of identity and cues of affiliation, people perform better: They’re more motivated and more productive. Such displays may sometimes be aimed at informing other people of who we are (or who we’d like to be), but often they are intended for a more intimate audience: ourselves.

For a study published in the Academy of Management Journal, researchers examined the workspaces of people holding a variety of jobs — from engineer to event planner, from creative director to real estate agent. The investigators found that about one-third of the personal tokens these professionals had incorporated into their workspaces were positioned so as to be visible only to them. Of the objects whose stated purpose for their owners was “reminding them of their goals and values,” 70 percent were placed out of the sight of others.

Why would we need such reminders? While our sense of self may feel stable and solid, it is in fact quite fluid, dependent on external structure for its shape. The material things we arrange around us help us maintain that sturdy self-conception. As the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written, we keep certain objects in view because “they tell us things about ourselves that we need to hear in order to keep our selves from falling apart.”

Moreover, we need to have close at hand those prompts that highlight particular facets of our identity. Each of us has not one identity but many — worker, student, spouse, parent, friend — and different environmental cues evoke different identities. Daphna Oyserman, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, notes that signals from the environment function to bring one of these many personas to the fore, with real effects on our thought and behavior. “Which identity is salient in the moment influences both what one pays attention to and what one chooses to do,” she writes.

Physical spaces powerfully shape the way we think and behave. History offers us a profusion of models on which to base our workplaces, and we should choose carefully the ones we adopt.

Annie Murphy Paul is the author of “The Extended Mind: The Power of Thinking Outside the Brain,” from which this essay is adapted.