open office environmentAbout a year ago, a former HR colleague called me in a panic. She was asked to help design a new office layout. Nobody would have offices or cubicle walls, not even the CEO.

“We’re going to lose people,” she told me.

I just checked in with her, and she did lose people. Quite a few. It coincided with an RPO initiative where, as the recruiting needs grew due to the attrition challenges, the CFO decided to outsource the hiring process to a third-party vendor to win the war for talent.

(I’m so glad that I no longer work in human resources.)

Creating an open office environment is a fast and practical way to reduce commercial real estate expenses while pretending that you care about aesthetics and collaboration. Your head of facilities can brag about tempered glass and funky light fixtures all he wants, but your employees aren’t stupid. They know that every dollar spent on new paint is a dollar saved on HVAC and electricity costs.

If you invest in facilities over people — and try to spin the cost-cutting endeavor into a people-related endeavor — good people will leave.

You can easily search the web for supporting materials to show how open office environments reduce creativity and collaboration. The articles are everywhere. Open office environments eat away at the corporate culture. Employees hate them. And nobody enjoys being lumped in uncomfortable but trendy pods and handed noise-reduction headphones.

How is that fun?

Some companies will create mixed zones and have an open office environment with a few private rooms on the side where people can hold separate and confidential conversations. Let’s just call those rooms what they are: tiny offices without formal nameplates on the door.

Why pretend otherwise?

Why not just assign those spaces? Are you afraid of empowering your employees with a door? Have you seen too many HR horror stories? Are you making up those potential horror stories in your head?


If you want to retain great people, you should learn from my former HR colleague. Aesthetics matter, but not in the way that you might assume. It’s cool and trendy to have an open, loft-style work environment with a ping pong table and a fancy espresso machine on the side. It’s even cooler if you let your employees work from home as needed and give them a dedicated and quiet space when they come into the office.


  1. There’s nothing quite like having a conversation with an employee that starts to get sensitive…and then you have to hunt desperately for a private space that doesn’t exist. And ambient noise is AWESOME for keeping focused. As are the drop-ins that you can’t signal are unwelcome while you’re working on something important BECAUSE YOU CAN’T CLOSE A DOOR.

    Cube farms are bad…but true “open concept” (all tables, no walls at all) are worse. It helps with chatting…and pretty much nothing else.

    I’m with Laurie – stop being cheap, people.

  2. A blended approach might work, especially if we think about the new world of work where employees have flextime, telecommute, etc. For those that have to be in the office, yeah, let’s give ’em an ‘office.’

    • I often imagine my ideal office space to be kind of modular/flexible. Desks and drawers on wheels, perhaps? Push them together when you need to collaborate or have a meeting, hunker down a quiet corner when you need to focus!

      • Options can be good, but haven’t we learned that people like to nest? They like to know they have a home with the option to be flexible?

  3. I wonder if there have ever been any cases of complaints about open office plans with respect to employees with invisible disabilities?

    Conditions like ADHD, learning disabilities, and maybe anxiety disorders, might make working in an open office plan very difficult (or just plain impossible) for some individuals. Even the majority of employees could manage okay in an open office, you’re still setting yourself up for failure if you want to attract, retain, and develop a diverse workforce.

    Open office plans tend to assume everyone is the same.

    • I tried to hint that a half-wall cube with its back to the major walkway wasn’t a good fit for me. Didn’t matter; the seating chart had been decided. Then a fellow backwards-cube colleague had the genius idea to grab a coworker and simply pick up the desk and turn it around.

      I immediately had the guys do the same for me.

      The fit is a tad awkward and doesn’t maximize the space, but at least i don’t have to always wonder who’s coming up behind me.

      TL;DR-yep, those “collaborative” layouts are hell on anxiety-ridden working stiffs.

  4. I got so much flack today on my Facebook group for quoting people who delivered what might be bad news about corporate recruiting. It was really endless. And then I read this refreshing posting and it made me feel good again.

  5. I like the concept of open offices and deplore cubicle farms. However, offices with a lot of phone activity in an open office environment sound to the customer like an echo chamber. Cubicles are more for acoustics than privacy. Solve the acoustical problems in open office environments and we’ll buy it.

  6. Great article! I hadn’t really given much to the topic until I read this. Having worked in both office environments, and looking back on those experiences, I would have to say that I agree with your conclusion. It would seem, at first glance, that being able to see your colleagues face and have a conversation without moving a muscle, would be a great thing. However, when it’s time to get down to business in your own work and in your own head, having a dedicated space, uninterrupted, is essential. I appreciate that you added in the concept of “mixed zones”, because that is my latest work environment. It does work, to some extent, but really, being able to work from home, or head to a coffee shop for a few hours to get some serious work done, is highly advantageous. For team collaboration, a dedicated space with big TV’s and white boards is essential to brain storming and getting work done, but then each member needs to have a place to go flesh the idea out and really process it. Being cooped up at a desk all day and having to hear every noise and seeing every movement that people around you, or even just having every minute idea bounced off of you because you’re in proximity, make the environment a killer to productivity,

  7. I have only held two positions that have been in an office setting with both of them being internships. Both of these office spaces were blocked off by individual cubicle spaces, so I have never really given much thought to open office environments. After giving the topic more thought and doing some additional research, I would have to agree with your final conclusion. With an open office setting, it would most likely be easier to collaborate with team members or share creative thoughts as well as being visually pleasing and trendy-looking. The downside of this open-office scenario is that their is ultimately a lack of privacy and constant distractions occurring. An individual needs to have the ability to be in their own thoughts and comprehend things the best they can with little to no distractions. I would find it difficult for someone with a complex task at hand being able to successfully complete it with excessive noise and an uncontrollable background is present. I am sure that there are many organizations in which open office setups work, but it really depends on the type of work that needs to be completed as well as the organization’s overall needs and goals.

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