Why modern offices should offer more privacy

Open-plan offices stress us out

Illustration of busy office with a lot of noise

(Peter Arkle)

For one day every three months, eBay CEO John Donahoe holes up in an empty office, where he stands in front of a blank whiteboard and maps out what he believes are the company’s most pressing challenges. He calls it his “thinking day,” and he wrote about his most recent one on LinkedIn: “I emerged with new insights and with greater clarity about what’s most important.”

If there is one issue that unites senior executives with the rank and file within an organization, it’s this: The need for some alone time.

Steelcase Inc., a publicly traded office furniture firm, has been studying privacy in the workplace since the 1980s, and its most recent findings, published in the Harvard Business Review, show the number of people who lack access to a quiet place to do focused work has increased by 13% since 2008. Previously, a survey of 1,374 senior executives conducted by McKinsey & Co. found the vast majority said they don’t get enough alone time to focus on important tasks, and only one-third carve out time to do so. The open office—sold as a way to eliminate the appearance of hierarchies and encourage interaction—has actually left us more stressed and less satisfied in our work than ever.

The problem is that big-picture insights are hard to come by when we’re being constantly interrupted. Studies have found that the more we multi-task—forever ping-ponging between deep thought and calls for coffee runs—the worse we become at blocking distractions. The result is a vicious cycle of broken concentration and cognitive overload.

The situation can be exacerbated by open offices, where privacy often comes at a minimum. A meta-analysis of more than 100 papers published in the International Review of Industrial and Organizational Psychology found open layouts are detrimental to concentration and job satisfaction, and actually increase stress levels. Last year, researchers for the Journal of Environmental Psychology conducted a survey of 40,000 office workers in the U.S. and found the claims that open layouts boost morale and productivity “have no basis in the research literature.”

Consider that one of the supposed goals of creating open environments was to increase the number of informal encounters in hopes of fostering new ideas and innovations. It can, however, have the opposite effect. “There can be fewer informal interactions because people feel uncomfortable talking to others when other co-workers could be eavesdropping,” says Anne-Laure Fayard, an associate professor of management at New York University, whose research focuses on office environments. Indeed, workers feel more cautious about talking out in the open if they don’t know who else might be listening. While informal interactions can still happen, the conversations tend to be short and superficial.


The open office trend shows few signs of abating. After all, one key motivator is cost; more people can be squeezed into an open floor plan. But there are ways to make these spaces more tolerable. Fayard says some companies are adopting layouts that are more functional in nature: incorporating not only open meeting rooms that are clearly designed for collaboration but also alcoves where people can go to be alone or have private conversations with colleagues. And at Steelcase, they’ve recently partnered with Susan Cain, the author of Quiet, on a new office concept that includes small, acoustically sealed rooms for focused work and private “rejuvenation.” Researchers have yet to subject these hybrid designs to the same level of scrutiny as open plans, so the ultimate benefits are not yet known. But for now there is hope of bringing solitude back to the office.