What if the workspace theories were wrong?
The theory goes that people communicate and share better if they share an office space. In fact, there appears to be very little evidence to support this theory. While it makes sense in a factory that everyone should be sharing a common work space, the same does not hold when people are expected to think and/or create something.
While creativity comes largely from the clash of different ideas and concepts, the understanding that your thoughts might be usefully combined with my ideas, your concepts might complete my theories. It therefore makes sense that people should be sharing the same space so that they can communicate, exchange and be inspired by one another.
Frequently, this is seen as solved through the creation of open space (open plan) offices in which everyone can freely exchange and communicate.
However, communication necessarily involves more listening than talking (or more reading than writing). The result of an open space office (with or without cubicles) is that communication get seriously reduced in practice. People in open-space offices frequently complain about the noise level which does not allow them to concentrate and the frequent interruptions by colleagues. Then, of course, there are the distractions, as one starts to listen to one side of a telephone conversation two desks away...
Interestingly, while management continues to promote the open-space environment, they do understand the negative consequences and reserve closed offices for themselves, usually taking up the windows, leaving the creative staff to work in permanent artificial light and recycled air. Of course, management claims that they need to have private conversations and discuss business critical affairs which they cannot do in an open-plan office. They also consider that, should any of the staff members need to discuss something, they can use the conference rooms, a facility they consider unsatisfactory for their own needs.
Many people in these spaces sit with headphones on, listening to music or the radio. They have broken off all communication with their peers and are working alone.
People are not interested in going through the complexity of finding and booking a conference room and, as a consequence, do not communicate when necessary. Either that, or they interrupt the work of their neighbours by talking loudly in the open space office. If you are focused on an activity, concentrating on what you are doing, there is no interruption of less than twenty minutes (before you get back to the same level of concentration).
The open-space office, contrary to the theory, reduces communication by increasing distractions.
Of course, having each individual in a single-person, closed office is not a solution to improve communication or efficiency. We are generally working in an environment where the team has become the critical factor. The ideal situation identified in many papers and researches, for optimized office work is to have closed offices per team with approximately 6 people sharing a space, working together on the same project, and being able to use wall-space to post key messages, progress reports, etc. In this environment, if one team wants to be noisy (whether brainstorming or celebrating), they are able to do so. If another team need quiet concentration, they can have it.
Since the publication of Tom de Marco's "Peopleware" in the 1980s, measurement has regularly demonstrated that open-space offices, in an engineering environment costs at least a 25% reduction in productivity.
The open-space office, contrary to the theories, reduces communication, productivity and quality by increasing distractions.
No one benefits.