I can’t properly describe the level of annoyance I felt when I read Steven Bell’s latest piece in College and Research Libraries News about open offices entitled “We’re all about openness: Except when it comes to our workspaces.” At first, I thought the piece was about open communication and transparency in the workplace, which is a topic near and dear to my heart. Then I realized that he was actually equating open practices like open education and open access with open offices, as if the barriers and benefits of each were somehow similar. The barriers to open access are economic and the consequence of those barriers are a lack of equal access to information. The benefit of getting rid of those barriers is democratized access to human knowledge. The barriers to open offices are physical walls and the consequences of those barriers are better privacy, productivity, cognitive performance, health, communication, innovation, psychological well-being, and job satisfaction. The benefit of getting rid of those barriers is economic. Later in this piece, you’ll see evidence that refutes the common argument in favor of open offices, which is that they lead to greater open collaboration and communication. In fact, scholarly researchers have found the opposite time and again.
Steven claims that he is “provid[ing] an objective look at the open office environment.” This is in no way objective; it’s simply his personal view on open offices and an account of how Temple University tried to mitigate some of the concerns about the move to open offices (with no details on how the changes impacted workers other than himself). As a fellow “open office dweller,” I won’t pretend that what I’m writing is “objective,” but I can promise that it’s better supported by scholarly research than Steven’s was. I have worked in solo-offices, an office shared with another person, a cubicle space shared with 4-5 other people, and my own home office (aka my bedroom). I can say unequivocally that the years I have spent in my cubicle have been the least productive and the most demoralizing.
Where the decision to introduce shared or open-plan work environments is made, it should be acknowledged that this is a cost-based decision rather than an initiative to improve working conditions or productivity. Employers and managers should be honest about this, and should not claim that there will be benefits to workers from changing to shared office space, because, as this and earlier reviews show, little evidence for such benefits exists.
-Richardson et al. (2017). “Office design and health: a systematic review”
There is a lot that bothers me about Steven’s piece, but these are the biggest issues:
- Minimizing the negative impacts of open offices
- Falsely equating open offices with openness
- Falsely equating open offices with worker equity
- Pitting user needs against worker needs
Since Steven claimed that it’s just as easy to find evidence to tout the benefits as it is to tout the problems with open offices, I relied below primarily on systematic reviews of the costs and benefits of open office vs. cellular office (solo office spaces with closing doors) as opposed to Steven’s hard-hitting evidence from the New York Times and Fast Company. And even when searching for the terms open office or cubicle with positive words like benefits, productivity, collaboration, etc., I couldn’t find any that provided concrete evidence of open offices being beneficial. So no, Steven, there is actually a dearth of information beyond conjecture supporting open offices. Here are some of the issues the studies raised:
1. Open/shared offices negatively impact health:
- One systematic review “found that, compared with individual offices, the introduction of shared or open-plan office space is remarkably consistent in its consequences, with every study reporting deleterious effects on employees’ health” (Richardson et al., 2017). This was backed up by more recent systematic reviews by James, Delfabbro, & King (2021), Gerlitz & Hülsbeck (2023), and Mauss, Jarczok, Genser, & Herr (2023).
- People in open offices tend to have more illnesses and thus on average, take more sick leave (Mauss, Jarczok, Genser, & Herr, 2023). This systematic review found that the differences in sick leave use in the studies between those in cellular offices vs. shared or open offices ranged from to 18-62%. One study found that the increase in illness risk is akin to that of parents with young children in daycare and preschool.
- A large-scale study in Norway found that those working in shared or open office plans “had a significantly higher risk of disability retirement when compared to respondents in cellular offices” even after adjusting for gender, ability, sick days taken, and level of leadership (Nielsen, Emberland, & Knardahl, 2021).
Obviously, in the world we live in now where COVID is both endemic and a cause of long-term disability for many, this issue should be even more of a consideration. We should be finding ways to decrease the spread of illness in the workplace, not increase it.
2. Open/shared offices impede our ability to think analytically and process information
A recent experimental study showed how the sort of noise in open office spaces decreases analytical processing ability which impairs our ability to make solid decisions (Mayiwar & Hærem, 2023). They also found that “noise reduced affective processing too, suggesting that noise might not only impair analytical processing but also interrupt people’s ability to trust their gut feelings.” All of the systematic reviews I cite below also found significant issues with cognitive load in open office, shared-office, and cubicle set-ups. Institutions spend so much time hiring the best library workers and then put them into space where they can’t do their best work. It’s baffling.
3. Open/shared offices have a deleterious impact on productivity
I’m sure it’s no surprise to anyone that working in open and shared office spaces has a significantly negative impact on productivity and that is supported in recent systematic reviews of the existing literature (Gerlitz & Hülsbeck, 2023; James, Delfabbro, & King, 2021; Masoudinejad & Veitch, 2022). You’d think if nothing else, employers would care about productivity because if less work is getting done, it might be a problem for the organization. But I guess librarians on the tenure track can just finish things up at home at night instead of spending time with their loved ones.
4. Open/shared offices negatively impact job satisfaction
Multiple systematic reviews found strong evidence that open office plans and cubicles are significantly associated with lower job satisfaction (Colenberg, Jylhä, & Arkestijn, 2021; De Croon, Sluiter, Kuijer, & Frings-Dresen, 2005; Gerlitz & Hülsbeck, 2023; James, Delfabbro, & King, 2021). Some reasons for that include noise and visual stimuli, lack of privacy, cognitive load, lack of individual control over the environmental conditions of the space, and worsening relationships with co-workers. Workers in shared office spaces report lower levels of psychological well-being as well.
5. Open offices don’t actually increase collaboration or face-to-face communication
In spite of the fact that one of the most common arguments for moving to open offices is to spur collaboration and connection, this has never been borne out in research. This recent study was the first actual empirical study of the impact a move to an open office architecture from cellular offices had on face-to-face collaboration (Bernstein & Turban. 2018). Rather than relying on subjective reporting, the researchers had employees at two large companies making this switch wear sensors that captured data when they were interacting with others before and after the switch. At the first company, face-to-face interactions went down 72% after the move to the open office architecture and at the second it decreased 67%. Emails also increased significantly (up to 56%) after the move to open offices. Managers also reported overall decreases in productivity. James, Delfabbro, & King’s 2021 systematic review of the literature found very limited weak evidence of positive social gains from moving to an open office and significant strong evidence of negative impacts on co-worker relationships and ease of interaction. Gerlitz & Hülsbeck (2023) also found decreases in employee face-to-face interactions in open office versus cellular office settings in their review. As someone who works in a cubicle setting, I get it. I hate to talk to my colleagues there because I know I will be distracting others in the space. I spent much more time in my previous job talking to my colleagues because they had offices and I knew I was only bothering them. It was also easier to discuss sensitive or private topics. And that’s why while in some ways, I find Steven’s placement in the open office admirable, I think having managers in open offices actually makes them less accessible to their direct reports.
Pitting the scholarly consensus against a few rah-rah articles in the popular media is a false equivalence if there ever was one.
One thing I didn’t see much research about is how non-cellular office schemes impact those with disabilities (and maybe that’s because the literature suggests that they’re bad for all employees). As someone working in a shared space with migraines and Raynaud’s, I know from experience how it can exacerbate frequency and severity of symptoms and how hard it is to mitigate those when any solution requires the cooperation and consent of many other people. In addition to noise and lighting, I’ve also gotten migraines from the smell of other people’s fragrances and food which I can’t escape in a shared space and which is really hard to have a conversation with a colleague about. You start to feel like the problem because you have a medical condition that requires others to change their behavior/environment to mitigate. I’ve also seen how shared spaces impact my colleagues with ADHD. While the noise, smells, and crappy lighting situation is a big problem for neurotypical folks, it is massively amplified for those who are neurodivergent. We talk in our field a lot about universal and inclusive design, but I have not seen that come up in conversations about workspace design in libraries. I wonder how the Temple University Libraries are accommodating folks with disabilities in this new open office scheme.
Another thing I didn’t see much research about is what kinds of work are better to do in cellular offices vs. open offices, shared offices, or cubicles. I can speak from my own experience and say that certain types of work are incredibly difficult to do in shared spaces. That there are aspects of my job I can easily do in an open office environment (collection development, work on spreadsheets, data-crunching, answering fairly routine emails), and many that I cannot do easily in an open office (lesson planning for classes, creating tutorials, web programming and other high-level tech work, online teaching, online meetings, online consultations with students, composing emails that require significant thought or are politically complex – basically anything that requires significant concentration). If the majority of work a library worker does regularly requires long periods of deep concentration and/or a lot of online meetings, it’s ridiculous to expect them to be able to get that work done in an open office setting. I’d say if at least 50% of their work fits that criteria in an average week, they should be in their own office or should be allowed to work from home whenever they choose. This isn’t about one role or type of work being more important than another; it’s about making sure employees have what they need to successfully complete the work they were hired to do.
Steven wrote about how moving everyone into open offices was a move towards greater equity because offices are a status symbol. Like him, I agree that people shouldn’t have offices based on status, but moving everyone into open office spaces is not equity. It’s treating everyone like they’re the same when they are not. There are people who will be able to do their work just fine in an open office configuration because of their personality, their lack of health or mental health issues, and/or the nature of the work they do. There are people who will struggle or will even be harmed by an open office space. At institutions where there’s not room for everyone to have an office, I’m not a believer in the idea that librarians deserve offices over non-degreed library workers because of their status. Our web programmer might not have an MLIS, but he definitely needs a space where he can concentrate on the very complex work he does. Someone with ADHD or autism may not be able to get their work done at all in an open office space. Someone who is immunocompromised could lose their life as a result of being made to work in an open office space. Since it’s clearly so important to him, I’d love to know how else Steven Bell is working to remove hierarchical structures and improve equity because Temple’s sick leave policy was not only Draconian, but ableist in the extreme and he was in a position of power where he could have fought for the people under him who were struggling with cancer or other life-threatening chronic diseases. Let’s not dress up open offices with a shiny bow and pretend that it’s about equity or collaboration or whatever. It’s simply about space.
Steven talks about the importance of setting norms, but I’ve also found that asking for accommodations and basic courtesy doesn’t always work. A lot of people use our space as a passthrough to other back-office areas of the library. We have signs on the doors to our space asking people to keep them closed. More often than not, people leave the door open, even when we’ve talked to them directly. Or if they do close it, some slam it shut. There are large recycling bins in the reference librarian space that are used primarily by folks in technical services and access services who are not in our space. My former cubicle was the closest to them (I moved as soon as another colleague left) and it was a frequent cacophony of people stuffing boxes in and slamming the lid down followed by the door to our space slamming shut. My colleagues and I asked numerous times if the bins could be moved since we don’t use them and we even identified a space that was not close to anyone other than a manager who has an office with a door that closes. We were treated like divas and denied this simple accommodation. And yes, obviously this is a case of bad management, but there are a hell of a lot of bad managers in our field who aren’t going to intervene when problems inevitably arise with the open office space. Imagine trying to plan activities for a class you’re teaching the next day and being interrupted by various types of banging every few minutes. It would honestly be better if it were consistent because it would be easier to ignore.
Steven is right that design can mitigate some of the issues with open offices, but certainly not all, and the net effect on employees and work outcomes will always be negative versus having employees in cellular offices. Both Steven and other authors mention the idea of having spaces that employees can book for noisy activities like meetings and student consultations, but people (like the ones with the sorts of needs I mentioned above) also need spaces for quiet concentration. One of the articles below talked about how employees had to get to their workplace before 7:45am if they wanted to be able to use one of the quiet rooms that day because the demand was so high. Steven talks about bookable rooms, but can they be booked for a whole day? There almost certainly won’t be enough for everyone who wants or needs it and in the absence of formal accommodations, it’ll be the early bird who gets the worm. And Steven may be right that in the era of telework, our current office configurations may not make as much sense. But better to have fewer cellular offices that people can book when they’re on-campus than lots of assigned desks in an open office space. Also, how well and how much are employers supporting telework? Can people work from home whenever and as much as they want? Do they have ergonomic setups at home or are they working at their kitchen table, risking a future workers compensation claim? And what about employees who have service desk shifts, classes to teach, or meetings on-campus, but also are doing work that day that requires concentration?
Steven’s piece pits the needs of users against those of workers, even using the phrase “user-centric or worker-centric mindset” as if they were mutually exclusive. This is not the first time I’ve seen administrators paint focusing on concerns about working conditions as somehow being anti-user. But our working conditions are students’ learning conditions. This has never been more apparent to me than when our college leadership a few weeks ago announced that all full-time faculty and staff, regardless of role and whether all their work is virtual, would need to be on-campus 80% of the time (and that’s everyone at the college, not just library folks). At PCC, the vast majority of faculty and staff work in cubicles and shared offices. There aren’t empty offices people can book when they need quiet concentration. While this was difficult pre-COVID, working in shared spaces will be nearly impossible with all the online classes we teach, online student consultations we do, and online meetings we have. Three colleagues and I who share the same office space made our dean a chart showing all the online things we had scheduled in a week last October. There were several times during the week when one of us was teaching an online class, another had an online meeting, and a third person had an online student consultation simultaneously. There were days when there was barely a single hour without someone doing something that required talking through a computer. And we actually have an additional new full-time colleague starting in the space this academic year plus two part-timers who are there occasionally. Fun, right? At that point, it’s not even about getting our best work done; it’s about getting our work done at all. We struggled to manage pre-COVID in that space with only a tiny number of online meetings each month and no online teaching or online consultations. I can’t teach an online class while other people around me are talking or constantly slamming doors. Our college has couched this change as being about “equity” for our students (sound familiar?), but I can’t see how people sitting in back offices or people not being able to teach online classes well because people around them are talking will benefit students in any way, shape, or form. Add to that our terrible IT infrastructure (the wifi hasn’t worked properly all Fall term so far – what decade is this?!?!?), and there is literally no escape from our noisy office spaces.
Steven ends his piece with this thought:
With the right design and worker norms in place, any undesirable behaviors are further diminished. Granted, losing a personal, private office is hard. Thinking of the transition in this way may allow for a more positive mindset. When moving from a private office to an open office, move beyond focusing on what you lost. Focus instead on the space improvements gained by those who use the library. In that respect, the decision to transform from private and closed to open and shared supports our essential core values. If it’s less than objective to state that this proposition is a “no-brainer,” this author pleads guilty.
Steven portrays the changes in moving from cellular to open offices as if they’re just a few minor annoyances where in reality, the literature indicates that this shift has significant impacts on employee well-being, absenteeism, job satisfaction, cognitive capability, productivity, and worker relations (not to mention the outsized impacts on many with disabilities). All that will undoubtedly impact our services to students. Making these issues sound minor trivializes our basic needs as workers. You’d almost think that he believes that space in the library is more important than the workers and the services those workers provide. And couching the move as moving more toward openness (in line with our core values?) is hindered by the reality that these shifts tend to lead to more barriers to open face-to-face communication and collaboration, not less.
There will always be competing priorities in libraries, but when will this erosion of library worker working conditions end? When we’re all sitting on each other’s laps? When we can no longer do our jobs at all? At so many institutions over the past few years, leaders have shown us who they really are. Some advocated so hard for the well-being of their workers. Others did the polar opposite. I’ll never forget when COVID started and our VPAA told faculty that they would be not only expected to create full online versions of their classes over Spring Break week (when most had zero experience doing so), but they also might be expected to run online and face-to-face versions simultaneously for students who wanted to be on-campus and students who could not be on-campus. You know, at that time when we were all adapting to a collective trauma, a public health emergency, and many were dealing with stressful caregiving responsibilities. It said so much about our administration that they believed this was a reasonable ask. Shortly after that, they tried to claw back the meager cost of living raises we’d won in our contract (while giving themselves raises). I’ve never worked anywhere with more dedicated faculty and staff and we’re treated by the administration like we’re monsters unless we’re willing to literally die for our students.
All the news of strikes in so many different sectors should tell administrators that labor has been pushed to the breaking point, but they still seem not to get it. I don’t expect managers to care about worker well-being because they care about the people working under them, but these erosions of our working conditions should matter to administrators because they impact the quality of our work and worker retention; both bottom-line issues. Worker burnout and attrition are costly to the institution. And I’ve found that so many managers aren’t even moved by that! Maybe because there will always be new bright-eyed, full-of-vocational-awe library workers to take our places when we’ve had enough? They will work us to the bone because they can. And the erosion of our workspaces are just one front of so many. So unlike Steven, I urge you to dwell on what you’re losing. Question the rhetoric from your boss(es) about the change. And if you believe the change is truly harmful, fight what they’re trying to take. Because in doing that, you’re fighting for your ability to do your best work, which ultimately benefits your patrons. Because anti-worker in libraries and higher education is ultimately anti-user.
Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1753), 20170239.
Colenberg, S., Jylhä, T., & Arkesteijn, M. (2021). The relationship between interior office space and employee health and well-being–a literature review. Building Research & Information, 49(3), 352-366.
De Croon, E., Sluiter, J., Kuijer, P. P., & Frings-Dresen, M. (2005). The effect of office concepts on worker health and performance: a systematic review of the literature. Ergonomics, 48(2), 119-134.
Gerlitz, A., & Hülsbeck, M. (2023). The productivity tax of new office concepts: a comparative review of open-plan offices, activity-based working, and single-office concepts. Management Review Quarterly, 1-31.
James, O., Delfabbro, P., & King, D. L. (2021). A comparison of psychological and work outcomes in open-plan and cellular office designs: A systematic review. Sage Open, 11(1), 2158244020988869.
Masoudinejad, S., & Veitch, J. A. (2022). The effects of activity-based workplaces on contributors to organizational productivity: A systematic review. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101920.
Mauss, D., Jarczok, M. N., Genser, B., & Herr, R. (2023). Association of open-plan offices and sick leave—a systematic review and meta-analysis. Industrial health, 61(3), 173-183.
Mayiwar, L., & Hærem, T. (2023). Open-office noise and information processing. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 38(6), 404-418.
Nielsen, M. B., Emberland, J. S., & Knardahl, S. (2021). Office design as a risk factor for disability retirement: A prospective registry study of Norwegian employees. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 47(1), 22.
Richardson, A., Potter, J., Paterson, M., Harding, T., Tyler-Merrick, G., Kirk, R., … & McChesney, J. (2017). Office design and health: a systematic review. New Zealand Medical Journal, 130(1467), 39.