One morning in May of 1905, an obscure Swiss patent clerk came downstairs in his dressing-gown, took a seat at the breakfast table, and announced to his wife, “Darling, I have a wonderful idea.” After drinking his coffee, he walked over to the piano and started playing a few notes. Every now and then, he would pause and exclaim, “I’ve got a wonderful idea, a marvelous idea!”
Pressed by his wife to elaborate, the man simply said, “It’s difficult, I still have to work it out.” He then locked himself in his study and remained there for the next two weeks. “Each day I sent him up his meals,” his wife would later recount to the silent film star Charlie Chaplin. “And in the evening he would walk for a little exercise, then return to his work again.”
Eventually, the man emerged from his study looking extremely pale. He put a few sheets of paper down on the kitchen table and said, “That’s it.” Contained within those sheets of paper was the single greatest contribution to science since 1666, the year that Isaac Newton fled to his mother’s house in rural Woolsthorpe—the plague was difficult to avoid that year—and developed calculus, an analysis of the light spectrum, and the laws of gravity. (Famously, Newton didn’t bother to tell anyone about his findings until several years later).
What these two discoveries have in common is that they were both done in almost complete isolation. Neither scientist had to deal with the hassle of sitting at a communal table full of chatty colleagues who insist on playing ping pong every half hour, can’t stop laughing at the latest funny cat video, and drone on endlessly about how the HBO series Game of Thrones is really starting to diverge from the George R.R. Martin books.
All of this stands in stark contrast to the prevailing wisdom, which states that the best way to come up an innovative idea is to cram as many people as possible around a giant table inside of a giant building that has just enough walls to prevent it from collapsing. The philosophy behind this is that the open space will encourage “creative collisions,” a popular buzz phrase which is basically interchangeable with “conversations.” Employees who talk to each other, the thinking goes, are in a better position to pool their knowledge, and are therefore in a better to position to apply that knowledge to whatever problem is at hand.
This style of office layout was first introduced by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1950s, then it migrated across the Atlantic, where it was enthusiastically embraced by Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs, and American Express. Facebook became the ultimate practitioner of the concept when Mark Zuckerberg hired Frank Gehry to design an open floor plan that could house 3,000 engineers, the largest office space of its kind in the world.
After taking over the corporate world (or at least 70% of the corporate world, according to one estimate), the Hamburg model is now poised to take over college campuses as well. A recent New York Times article notes that just about every college campus on the continent has a Gehry-esque Facebook-type building in development.
While this style of office layout has been shown to save on furniture costs, it has not been shown to improve productivity. After reviewing more than a hundred studies about office environments, organizational psychologist Matthew Davis found that open offices had a negative impact on workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Likewise, a survey of 38,000 workers conducted by David Craig found that the open environment led to decreased productivity, particularly among more senior employees. Nearly half of the workers surveyed in a 2013 study, meanwhile, complained that noise issues stemming from the open environment were hampering their ability to get work done.
Of course, none of this is to say that collaboration itself is unproductive. Indeed, Einstein credits a conversation he had with Michele Besso, one of his colleagues at the patent office, with helping him unravel one of the most difficult problems of relativity. The key to take away from this, however, is that the conversation happened on the street while the two men were walking to work, not at a communal desk 20 feet away from a ping pong table. In this particular case, having conversations in a place where conversations are supposed to happen and doing work in a place where work is supposed to be done seems to have worked out pretty well.
Some will argue that the open office environment can produce results that are simply impossible to produce in a partitioned space, and this is certainly true. For brain-storming sessions, team-building exercises, and maintaining a general sense of mission, the open office environment can’t be beat. But for tasks which require intense concentration and imagination, surrounding yourself with potential distractions may not be the best way to go.
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