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Call her Mary the Oppressed. A senior sales director at a small business-to-business dotcom in New York City, she has been living in open-space hell. Arrived recently from a publishing firm, she is nearly 40 years old and had had her own office for 15 years. Now she found herself among 30 people, grouped according to job function, sitting at long tables arranged to form a rectangle in a 5,000-sq.-ft. room with a concrete floor and bare windows.
After a "hideous" six months, Mary says, "I just couldn't stand it. My ability to focus went down so by Friday, I couldn't concentrate at all." When she made sales calls, the noise level was so high that potential clients would ask whether she was calling from the airport. Only after the company moved to new quarters, where she got a cubicle, did she decide to stay.
Who says the culture wars are over? Political correctness isn't a big issue at the myriad companies responsible for the American economic boom of the '90s and beyond. What drives people up the wall is the issue of walls themselves, or the lack of them. In the early '90s, when flat organization structures, low salaries and the dream of an IPO captivated everybody, one symbol of the democratic capitalist revolution was the wall-less office, which brought together CEOS and corporate grunts in one big, happy, synergistic family. Andy Grove had--and still has--a cubicle; Jay Chiat didn't even have that. The wall-less office ruled.
Well, there aren't as many IPOs these days. And there aren't as many fans of the open office either. One day last month, Cornell University's William Sims visited two high-tech start-ups as part of his work for the International Workplace Studies Program, a group that researches innovative workplace strategies. One company was the 75-person software-design division of a larger firm; the other was a smaller Web-design outfit. Each had or was planning an ever so hip open-office design for its new digs near the university in Ithaca, N.Y. Sims heard the same struggle unfolding in each: the top manager was committed to the cool look that identified the outfit as a successful new-economy type; the employees were demanding offices with walls and, gasp, doors. The manager of the first group was "worried," says Sims, "that 'if I force them too much, they'll go down the road.'" The founder of the second company, Sims reports, felt staffers could "'like it or lump it.'"
Working in an environment with neither walls nor doors is an experience many now endure or, like business author Walt Goodridge, remember with dread. Goodridge recalls his seven years in the World Trade Center as a civil engineer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. "We occupied the whole 73rd floor, more than 200 people in cloth-covered steel cubicles. Sitting, you were alone; standing, you could look directly into someone else's cube. I fixed my computer so passersby couldn't see it. But you could overhear everyone's phone conversations, and rumors spread quickly."
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Is the germ of a counterrevolution brewing? On the surface, not really. From corporate behemoths like Alcoa to midsize ad agencies to tiny Web designers, companies are still opting for open-plan offices. More companies, like Ogilvy & Mather in Los Angeles, now boast that not even their CEO has a door. Some have backtracked a little and provide sequestered spaces for the few, cubicles for the many. But most open-plan proponents still deride walls as barriers to the creative teamwork demanded by a high-speed economy.
While some who labor in these corporate hives are high on the buzz and boast that it's great for productivity, others are miserable. Researchers are starting to say with increasing insistence that much of the time the open-office style just doesn't work.
To back up the contention, Mike Brill, president of BOSTI Associates, has numbers--from 13,000 workplace evaluations by employees and managers at 40 organizations from Lockheed and Ernst & Young to Sun Microsystems and Microsoft, all done over the past six years. In every case Brill asked, How does the physical environment contribute to workers' job satisfaction and performance, both individual and team? "The single most powerful factor," Brill found, "is the ability to concentrate on work without distraction. The second is frequent, informal interactions between workers. These themes need to be balanced." Consider, says Brill, that at least half of all professionals' time is spent doing quiet, focused work, and two-thirds of people in open offices are disturbed by others' conversations. Offices that have no enclosures, he declares, are "ludicrous."
Brill did not factor age into his studies, but most people say the young fare better in these settings. "They're young and hope to make a zillion bucks quick," says Cornell's Sims. "And they're more recently out of studying in student unions, where they're used to screening out distractions." For the not-so-young, the open office can be hellish, especially when it gives no quarter to basic needs like privacy and quiet.
Horror stories about the wall-less world abound. When dividers at a Manhattan placement agency were removed to foster "working together," reports Cecile Marie, 41, the 12 people in the 20-ft. by 30-ft. space started yelling across the room to one another. "We eventually brought in a psychiatrist because we were all so stressed," she says. "That's one of the reasons I left."
Now an independent coach who helps executives achieve work satisfaction and performance, Marie hears a variety of complaints about open offices. The gamut runs from increased friction with co-workers to a rise in "corporate speak" because of fear of being overheard to a decline in critical thinking. Since 1997, Marie has seen a rise in gripes: "This situation has forced some employees to resign from firms and to demand adequate space in the firms that hire them."
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A frustration voiced by clients of Martella Keniry, owner of Los Angeles consultancy Organize to Optimize, which helps individuals and companies plan their physical space, is that open offices are big time wasters. "When co-workers cruise by one's cubby for a chat," she notes, "it takes the average person five to 10 minutes to get back a deep level of concentration. Multiply that by 10 times a day--a low estimate--and you have 50 to 100 minutes of wasted time." Others maintain that impromptu dialogues are the raison d'etre of the open office. At the Pasadena, Calif., quarters of idealab!, an incubator for start-up Internet companies, Gary Horwitz, vice president for real estate and facilities, notes, "The openness of the space is conducive to a free flow of communication and problem solving."
Even when corporations claim to love the open plan, observes Seppy Basili, a co-founder of marketing firm Learning Brands, eliminating private offices is not "sincere." His company, he notes, moved from one large room without enclosures to new space with five (doorless) offices for managers. "Hierarchy is a reality," he says, "and there are times when senior staff absolutely need privacy to talk to investors or discuss personnel issues."
Disregarding the need for privacy, suggests Brill, results "in a kind of masked sweatshop mentality. The cost reductions in physical plants have blinded people to the benefits of employees' being able to concentrate on their work and having necessary private moments."
Many protests against open offices, experts warn, are actually gripes about offices that are not well designed to accommodate differing kinds of work. Some companies are trying to address these problems by compensating workers for the loss of private spaces with amenities like rec rooms or homey kitchens. More to the point, they are creating at least a few places where employees can go to make a private phone call, work in peace with their teams or just hear themselves think.
"Escape routes" are what Ogilvy & Mather CEO Jerry McGee calls the conference rooms and "war rooms" created for the ad agency's new Los Angeles offices. To allow private conversations, idealab! has installed three "phone booths," 4-ft. by 5-ft. rooms, each with a stool, a countertop, a phone mounted on the wall and a glass-paneled wood-frame door. The booths will also be a feature of the company's offices in New York City, Palo Alto, Calif., Boston and London, all scheduled to open in November.
Retreats like these are on the rise in the newest high-end offices, but even the best do not have enough of them. McGee still raves about the adrenaline buzz and spontaneity of his shop. He laughs when asked where he fires people. "I take them on a long walk," he says.
Walking away is a strategy more and more workers are using. On the phone with your lover and the chat heats up? Talking to your doctor and the news gets grim? Just pick up your cell phone and amble to a hallway or right out of the building. "I can't tell you how often we've pulled up at a client's," says Santa Barbara, Calif., architect Robin Donaldson, "and found the CEO out in the parking lot making a cell-phone call. I think the proliferation of cell phones has made these open offices workable."
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If you need to opt out of the collective din, you can put on headphones. At ad agency Ground Zero in Los Angeles, chairman Jim Smith reports, "everyone's computer plays music, so they wear their headphones and create their own worlds." At idealab! several people resort to this strategy. "I have no idea what they're listening to," says Horwitz.
To really solve the attention problem, many workers are taking an even more radical step: they are leaving the office. With their companies' blessing, more and more of them are working at home, at least part time. Little wonder, says researcher Brill, given how hard it is to concentrate in these places, no matter how young and hip you are. His son Zeke is a good example.
Zeke Brill, 28, director of game development for Heavy.com a broadband entertainment company, works from home at least two days a week. Heavy.com's dramatic Manhattan office--all white with red floors in an old Garment Center office building--houses more than 30 people, ages 25 to 30, in one long room partitioned by white, translucent Plexiglas panels suspended from the ceiling. Behind his dividers, Brill sits with two other guys on his team. The video games on their monitors attract high traffic, and the live-action features filmed on the other side of the dividers occasionally erupt with gunfire. "The energy's great," Brill exclaims, "but besides managing people, I'm the programmer for most of the games, and that work requires more focus." At home he can get started earlier--no morning rituals like dressing or shaving--and between breaks for showering, eating and other mundane occupations, he can concentrate on the more technical part of his work. But he is in constant e-mail communication with his teammates and says all his best ideas come from bouncing things off them.
In hot outfits like Heavy.com creativity requires only a time-out. But many young companies that were formerly entranced by the radical open look are opting for more enclosure as they mature. It didn't take long for Rob Frasca, CEO of Internet Venture Works, a firm based in Boston that builds Internet businesses with traditional companies, to make the change. When he started Galt Technologies in 1993 in an old warehouse in the Oakland district of Pittsburgh, Pa., Frasca wanted a "really cool" open design. "Within two months," he says, "all the employees had built their own makeshift barriers, using bookshelves, whiteboard, coatracks and Pier 1 folding screens. I quickly realized that while CEOs and marketing directors love the marketing ploy of high-tech cool, it doesn't work." His current space at IVW, which he founded in December 1999, provides lots of offices and high, podlike cubes for privacy as well as dedicated spaces for collaboration.
After three years in an "incredibly groovy" Manhattan loft, the top brass at VIA, a marketing and strategic-design agency, also found they had to provide more separation. "The designers want music," explains Donna Torrance, general manager of the New York City office, "the writers want silence, and the account people are on the phone all day." Her solution? She is moving the departments far from one another and isolating the writers in a room with a door. But it's a 100-in.-wide swinging barn door, she notes. "When it's not shut, the opening is half the width of the room inside, and the writers will still be sharing energy and space with us."
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What VIA has discovered by trial and error is a balance between open and closed spaces, between individual work and collaborative effort. It is the compromise Brill is currently suggesting to his clients, adding to the mix the crucial element of choice. "We're recommending team spaces in the middle of a cluster of small private offices," he says. "If you open the door, you're in the team space. If it's shut, you're not."
Don't be worried, however, that open-plan offices are about to go the way of the cherrywood executive corridor. Despite the many drawbacks, no one is predicting the concept's imminent demise. The cost of real estate is just too high, and open plans are cheaper space at higher density. The challenge that open space--in fact, any space--must confront is that "work is changing more rapidly than the environment," says Judith Heerwagen, an environmental psychologist in Seattle, "and we have to catch up and understand it better."
Staff members at Sun Microsystems are trying to do just that, says Ann Bamesberger, director of the company's workplace-effectiveness group. Encouraged by Bamesberger's group, they are beginning to make office-design decisions based largely on how they work. "A group might say," she explains, "'Forget individual spaces and build us a club. We'll do our heads-down work from home. We know we can't work in that noise.'" In a global economy, Bamesberger says, "the idea of seeing everyone in the office is now antiquated."
Now, there's a thought: the open office is retro. --With reporting by Valerie Marchant/New York City
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