I’m a millennial and I work in social media. What image pops in your head when you visualize the type of office space I have at work? If you saw a hyper-modern, open room with bright white walls and glass doors where dozens of workers type away on long countertops, then you wouldn’t be too far off. This image of the cool looking open office has become the default prescription for today’s knowledge workers. Those of us in creative and tech-forward jobs are told we want and enjoy these types of spaces because they offer increased opportunity for collaboration and help us increase buzzword behaviors such as synergy. But are these spaces really supporting the kind of work we need to do, or are they just aesthetically trendy?
In Deep Work, Cal Newport (2016) names open plan offices among his list of mistakes today’s companies are making in their efforts to encourage productivity. Other top offenders include the use of instant messaging platforms such as Slack and the forcing of workers to use social media in a professional capacity. What all of these have in common is that they breed distraction, which if you will remember from my last post is antithetical to the practice of deep work.
Some mornings after I’ve pried myself out of bed and gotten dressed, I sit in my kitchen longing to stay home, not because I don’t want to work, but precisely because I do. My house is quiet, and I’d be alone, in full control of my space. The focus I could attain would be as rich and satisfying as a bar of dark chocolate. At the office I’m on a constant race to be productive between interruptions.
Open offices are always noisy and full of auditory distractions from phones ringing to conversations at the coffeemaker, but this isn’t the full problem. I find, even if I purposely turn off all notifications and put on noise-canceling headphones to focus, it’s too easy for someone to simply turn around to ask me if I’ve gotten their message. There are no doors to close and nowhere to hide. You are always accessible and therefore assumed to be always available.
This accessibility may be causing a much less visible distraction too. The word open in open office means there aren’t many walls. Which besides providing a lack of options for personalizing your workspace, cause most workers to sit with their backs exposed. In his article “Open-Plan Offices Make the Workplace More Toxic” Geoffrey James points out how our brains are not evolutionarily alright with such exposure. “When you sit with your back exposed, your body constantly produces the stress hormone cortisol, which negatively affects your weight and immune system while creating a greater risk of chronic disease”(James, 2018, pp. 18).
Interestingly, cortisol is also produced when you try to resist using your smartphone when you are addicted to it (Cooper, 2017). It’s why you get anxious and repeatedly pick up your phone. So strong is this stress hormone that we are compelled to touch our phones up to a staggering 2,617 a day (Lewis, 2018, pp. 6).
The healthier you are, the better you feel and the better you feel, the higher quality work you produce. However, the more you are exposed to cortisol, the worse the physical side effects get, impacting your professional abilities.
I’m already sitting almost all day, stressed by my addiction to technology, eating Kit Kats for lunch, I don’t need my office space helping along my physical deterioration. To top it all off, germs spread faster in open offices too (James, 2018). That’s not good news for to those of us with compromised immune systems from all that cortisol flooding our bodies
Employers obviously aren’t making the best decisions in this area. Newport (2016) says this is caused by a lack of data about the value of deep work in the decision-making process. So, what can we do, short of building ourselves improvised cubicles out of file folders? We can start supporting the collection of that data and even providing some of it on our individual workplaces.
Instead of silently accepting the problem and trudging on, speak up. Be vocal around your team and other coworkers about how things like your office layout or provided tools are negatively impacting your work. You may find others with similar feelings.
If you find compatriots, brainstorm ideas for turning your group’s anecdotes and feelings into data. For example, have everyone track how many times they are interrupted for a week and how long it takes for them to get back on task. Add up the results and share it with the powers that be. Your efforts could spark your employer to pursue their own data collection and result in improvements.
In lieu of providing personalized data, you can read and do research, just like I’ve done for this post, and share it with decision makers. Perhaps you think Slack isn’t working for your office. Research alternatives and create a small presentation about the benefits of adopting a different piece of technology or method of communication.
It’s alright to question the embracing of a trend simply because its trendy, or tech simply because its tech. We must ask why something was designed the way it was. Was it to help us or to fulfill another goal? As former Google product manager Tristan Harris points out in reaction to deciphering the intent of big technology companies and the addicting power of the products they make, “ask when these features are being designed, are they designed to most help people live their life? Or are they being designed because they’re best at hooking people into using the product?” (Cooper, 2017, pp. 8).
In his article “How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality” writer Franklin Foer (2017) argues that technology companies, through the psychological manipulation and addition of their products, are trying to mold us and our behaviors into a collective image of their own creations. While I don’t agree with his extreme alarm at this prospect, I also don’t believe there’s a one sizes fits all approach to life.
When it comes to making us focused and productive workers, it’s up to each one of us to define our needs so we can have the work environment and tools that truly serve us.
Cooper, A. (2017, April 9). What is “brain hacking”? Tech insiders on why you should care. CBS News. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/brain-hacking-tech-insiders-60-minutes/
Foer, F. (2017, September 8). How Silicon Valley is erasing your individuality. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/how-silicon-valley-is-erasing-your-individuality/2017/09/08/a100010a-937c-11e7-aace-04b862b2b3f3_story.html?noredirect=on
James, G. (2018, July 25). Open-plan offices make the workplace more toxic. Inc. Retrieved from https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/7-ways-open-plan-offices-make-workplaces-toxic.html
Lewis, P. (2017, October 6). ‘Our minds can be hijacked’: the etch insiders who fear a smartphone dystopia. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/05/smartphone-addiction-silicon-valley-dystopia
Newport, C. (2016). Chapter 2: Deep work is rare. In Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (pp. 49-71). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.