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."
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.