Your colleague can't stop talking about her new boyfriend to her best friend on the phone. Barely two feet away from you, she's literally shouting. You can't help but wish that you had an office to hide out in.
It's par for the course in the modern workplace. Big-name firms like UBS and GlaxoSmithKline are trading cubicles for communal, unassigned workspaces -- "flexible" offices.
A flexible office has no high-walled cubicles or enclosed, private spaces. Instead, it has low (or no) dividers between work stations, and, in some cases, does away with traditional assigned seating. Desks are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis -- a practice called "hotelling."
The concept is gaining popularity among many corporations, who see benefits like lower real estate and energy expenditures, since desks and utilities are provided and used only as needed. But it has its drawbacks.
"Real estate is now driving office design, without much science in place," says Steve Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based architectural and product-research laboratory that works primarily with U.S. corporations. "Flexible offices, hotelling, etc. usually are implemented with no baseline measurement of occupants or the environment, and no measurements after the change."
Orfield is among a number of critics who find the ever-shrinking workspace a troubling development and believes everyone should have an office.
Happier, More Productive Employees
Personal space can make employees feel as if they are of value to their company. Thus, they are happier and more productive.
"Although people are the greatest asset of any company, usually representing around 90% of costs, companies are far more focused on real estate and energy, to the detriment of people," says Orfield. Research suggests that people are more efficient in an environment which makes them happy, he says.
As corporations cut costs during the recession, many turned to flexible office spaces for the cost benefits. While flexible workspaces cut down on unused space and idle electricity use, cost-cutting and penny-pinching can often come at the expense of employees' sanity and well-being.
"Simply looking at workspace as a place to hold employees on a temporary basis does not send a signal that the company values its employees," says Deborah Dragseth, professor of Business Administration at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.
"These are tough economic times for many companies, but the short-term benefits of trimming real estate costs to help the company's bottom line may come at the cost of its employees' satisfaction, productivity and tenure."
No Workplace Cabals
Open work spaces in flexible offices change the social dynamic of the workplace and can cause awkward work issues.
How does one handle the worker bee who always reserves and sits in the one available room reserved for quiet work? Or the group of supervisors that regularly leave communal space to have private meetings?
Registering a conference room in a communal workspace can send a rather strong message, says Orfield, the Minneapolis office space expert. "It's a social symbol to everyone that you're doing something privately," which can make others feel excluded.
Everyone Stays Focused
In communal workspaces, it's difficult to avoid distractions.
"The incredible rise in interruptions was already overwhelming from the 'answer your email immediately, you must always be accessible' cultures before the walls came tumbling down," says Deborah Kinney, a New York City certified professional organizer and time-management coach.
Kinney says that her clients in open offices can't focus until late in the day and wind up taking work home. "These are not highly productive hours for people," she says, "these are the hours of rapidly diminishing returns."
Battling with regular office distractions also becomes more of a challenge.
"Years ago, I worked in the marketing department of a major healthcare system and they re-organized our area so we were all facing each other across our desks in a big room, with no partitions between us," says Mark McLaughlin, director of marketing at Mancomm, a safety and compliance publishing company based in Davenport, Iowa. "It reduced my productivity because I always had to stop and return comments from the person sitting across from me."
Constant interruptions and a lack of acoustic barriers can make work feel less professional.
"In one setting we had a receptionist and secretary sharing a workstation," says Thomas Tuft, an attorney-at-law in Maplewood, Minn. "The one with the biggest voice could be heard on the other's phone calls. It was not workable." Since then, the office has moved everyone but the receptionist to a private office -- which Tuft says has been an effective solution.
Personalized Workspaces and Ergonomics
Personalized workspaces, ergonomically tuned to your needs, are a thing of the past in the flexible, open offices of the future. The idea of eliminating a space you can call your own in at work has psychological impacts.
"If employees can't personalize their workspaces by making them homelike with pictures, plants, and personal items, they see themselves as transient workers," says Dragseth.
"There is a sense of anonymity, a feeling that they can be easily replaced or literally 'lost in the shuffle,'" she says. "It's human nature to want a place to call our own where people would miss them if they weren't there."
The shared space also impinges on ergonomics. According to research from Staples Advantage, the office supply retailer's business-to-business division, 70% of staffers say their workspace isn't ergonomically tuned for them. Were their workspaces more comfortable, one in two office workers said they'd be more productive, and one in three said they'd be more pleasant to work with.
People tend to behave differently when they know they can be observed, and without private offices, you're frequently visible to colleagues and superiors alike.
Private rooms offered in flexible workspaces don't mitigate the fact that people in your office know what you're doing and saying much of the time, says Orfield. "People don't want others observing them while they work," he says.
Constant visibility might also prevent people from taking the steps involved in solving office issues or problems. "It leaves no room for discretion to smooth things over or help someone through a rough spot and get back to being a productive part of the company," says Kinney.
Security and cleanliness are an added concern. Workplace equipment like computers, keyboards, and phones are sometimes shared in flexible settings, so storing personal documents on a hard drive comes at a greater risk.
But even if you keep your cyber-workspace clean, you can't always avoid a dirty workspace. "At one point, one coworker had pink eye and the rest of us were afraid to touch anything she'd touched," says McLaughlin. "She was always blowing her nose and that was disconcerting, wondering if airborne germs were floating around."
You Know Who's Really Important
Without individual offices, there isn't a notion of value- or rank-based privacy in an office, meaning that managers who were once rewarded for achievement with an office sit with their subordinates.
Many companies have taken all but the most senior-level executives out of private, four-walled offices to put managers at desks, often with their entry-level colleagues.
"When the boss has a personal, enclosed office space, but subordinates do not, it clearly indicates a company that is giving private office space to those employees who are valued -- those with high status and high salaries," says Dragseth. "Large offices are often used as rewards and space indicates power and status."
The corporate hierarchy exists for good reason, and becoming too "chummy" with supervisors might make discipline or difficulties harder to address. "There's no evidence showing that younger workers want to be observed by their boss on a constant basis," says Orfield, and having shared space just blurs professional lines.
Nonetheless, the trend of open offices with ever smaller individual workspaces is probably unstoppable. Fans of flexible, open offices say such designs offer greater ease of collaboration and communication. Privacy and ergonomic issues can be addressed by providing closed door rooms available to all, lockers where workers can store personal belongings and properly designed chairs and desks that can adapt to different physiques.
The real reason for the continued rise of the open office? It's cheaper. Few companies these days feel they can afford to give everyone – or most people – their own private space.
According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, three decades ago, employees had between 500 to 700 square feet each in an "effective office" -- a number which has dwindled to slightly more than 200 square feet today, and could continue to shrink to only 50 square feet by 2015.
Write to Kelly Eggers
Editor's note: Mark McLaughlin's quotation has been amended to reflect the fact that he was commenting on his prior employer -- not Mancomm, his current employer.