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Learning & Earning

Open offices seem great — until you work in one

For years, this favored style of architects and CEOs has reigned supreme. Could that finally be changing?

Some 80 percent of offices these days are “open,” roughly defined as work spaces that minimize doors in favor of low (or no) partitions, shared desks, and a full-on view of any number of people at once, very often the boss included.Zigy Kaluzny/Getty Images

In October, EF Education First unveiled, with a ceremony that included appearances by then governor Deval Patrick, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and a Paraguayan children’s orchestra that played instruments made of recycled trash, a new state-of-the-art work space in Cambridge. The international education company’s $125 million, 300,000-square-foot headquarters has 360-degree views of Greater Boston, sustainable design elements like rain gardens, and very few walls. With 10 floors of open space, the largest such workplace in Massachusetts is meant to give everyone a shot at the view while, according to North America CEO Edward Hult, increasing “interaction, collaboration and creativity” throughout. Four months on, the office is “working really well,” says Hult. “We have 16 different types of flexible workspace on every floor of the building . . . and it’s really exciting to see every one of those spaces being used in different ways by EFers in our different divisions every day.”

Some 80 percent of offices these days are “open,” roughly defined as work spaces that minimize doors in favor of low (or no) partitions, shared desks, and a full-on view of any number of people at once, very often the boss included. There are two reasons for the format’s popularity. The first is the cost of real estate, says Jeffrey Tompkins, a partner at Boston architecture and interior design firm Spagnolo Gisness & Associates. Twenty-five years ago, he says, the standard allotment was 250 square feet per worker. Now it’s 160 to 190. Simple math says you can fit in more employees when you don’t need to work around walls.


The bigger driving factor, however, has been the pervasive idea that open offices encourage collaboration, spark creative conversation, and increase productivity. Since there’s really no such thing as a private conversation in many of these offices, they also serve to symbolize the modern, egalitarian workplace ideal: one big happy family that types together, eats together, and works through personal drama together. “I love the ability to know what’s going on with all the projects around me,” says Faith Marabella, the CEO and president of Wellesley Design Consultants, whose offices transitioned from mostly to fully open a few years back. “I also like the quick interactions that can happen. Everybody can lend a hand when needed and go back to individual tasks when things calm.” The open environment, she says, also lets less experienced staffers listen and learn.

Of course, listening isn’t always about learning, and not just because people are nosy. “We had one person who listened to everyone’s conversations and would inevitably get herself involved in some way, whether it was professional or personal,” says interior designer Catherine Ehlen, who’s worked in a variety of open offices. “There was a lot of running outside to your car to make a phone call or doctor’s appointment. Scheduling a mammogram is not something I needed my co-workers to know about.” (On the topic of health, open offices actually put workers at “significant excess risk” for calling in sick, according to a 2014 study from Sweden.)


Jeff Brayer, who works in an open office in Charlestown as director of sales at OnHand, calls the open office a “procrastination buffet: There’s always someone to catch up with, a game to play, or a comfortable lounge to escape to,” which certainly challenges the idea of encouraging productivity. As Ehlen says: “There’s a lot of back-and-forth switching of gears. You have to be able to make other people’s noise white. People will assume you’re free because you’re sitting there.” One design firm she worked for had a rule, though it was never enforced: Wait until you have more than one question before approaching someone. “Inevitably, people would be having their own meeting and scream over at you, ‘Hey, Cat, what’s the toilet you’re using?’ for this other project you hadn’t thought about for weeks, instead of just noting it as something to ask me later,” she says.


For years, researchers who study organizational behavior and workplace productivity saw the open office — cheaper to maintain and better for productivity — as one with few downsides. “We expected them to be vibrant communities of people colliding to change the scope and vision of a company,” says Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. “But in most cases, that vision has been replaced by the reality of co-workers wearing headphones and trying as best they can to tune in to their own stuff.” Interaction, he says, has actually declined in some open offices. So has creativity, as employees who feel “watched” take fewer risks and therefore innovate less. “Most of us can list at least three or four things we wouldn’t feel comfortable doing in front of a large group of people but would do in a more closed environment,” says Bernstein. “That level of comfort is critical for workplaces to harness, but something we lose when we open up the office.”


The design of EF Education First’s $125 million headquarters in Cambridge focuses on 10 floors of largely open space. David L. Ryan/Globe staff/file

Of course, too much comfort can also be a problem. “In the social media age, there’s already an abundance of oversharing,” says Marabella. “Keeping things professional can be a challenge for some.” (Recalls Ehlen, “I had a co-worker who loved to reheat last night’s fish in the microwave.”) Indeed, the greatest beneficiaries of the open office may be those companies that make products designed to counter it. Cambridge Sound Management, which specializes in sound masking, says its business has nearly tripled since 2011 and that 90 percent of it comes from open office installations. Meanwhile, experts in “change management” — broadly, the structured implementation of organizational change — are chipping in to help with the often tricky transition from closed to open office environments.

Which might be why there’s lately been something of an open office backlash. Tompkins says requests have slowed over the last 18 months at his architecture firm, and even among those companies that start out really enthusiastic, a good 50 percent call back after six months to say, well, on second thought, they actually could use some private space after all. “There’s no doubt that if you foster a collaborative environment, you bring ideas to market quicker, but people are naive to believe that collaboration happens 100 percent of the time,” Tompkins says. “There needs to be a period when people go back and develop ideas — alone.” (EF knew this: Hult points out that the new headquarters offers plenty of “opportunities to retreat, reflect, and focus,” including soundproof telephone rooms.)


Although it considers its open office a success, Newburyport branding firm Mechanica is in the process of expanding its space to include what design director Tamara Battis-Lee calls “quiet zones for when people are on deadline or when the open office is distracting.” South End design studio and accessories boutique M. Flynn, meanwhile, co-owned by sisters Megan and Moria Flynn, is in the process of closing up its open offices entirely. “We face each other at our desks,” says Megan. “It makes things feel very casual, and so one of us is always interrupting the other. Or we find ourselves listening in to a salesperson working with a client and then running out to offer our two cents, which makes people feel stepped on.” A few months back, Moria started going to the public library near her home in Milton whenever she needed to focus. “That’s when we really knew,” says Megan, who had meanwhile been taking her most important work calls in the hallway. “It’s kind of sad when you can’t get work done in the office.” The new walls, she says, will be up by spring.


The following items are not allowed in most parts of Wired magazine’s luxe new $3 million office in San Francisco, according to a January memo by editor-in-chief Scott Dadich:

> Coffee stains on walls

> Overflowing compost bins

> A surfeit of family photos

> Too many mementos of “personal accomplishment”

> Abandoned drafts of stories

> “[P]romotional, er, uh . . . crap”

> Coffee stains on countertops

> Phones on laptop platforms

> Coffee stains on desks

> Neon signs

> “One-of-a-kind lighting appliance[s]”

> Dirty dishes

> Day-old or half-eaten food

> Action figures

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Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport and a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.