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Thursday, May 02, 2019

Yes, the Open Office Is Terrible — But It Doesn’t Have to Be

Yes, the Open Office Is Terrible — But It Doesn’t Have to Be (Ep. 358) - Freakonomics Freakonomics

"[On reduced interaction] Maybe you don’t want to disturb other people...

Or maybe you compensate for the openness of the open office with behavior that sends a do-not-disturb signal.

BERNSTEIN: If everyone can see you, you want to signal to everyone that you are a hard worker, so you look intensely at your screen. Maybe you put on headphones to block the noise. Guess what? When we signal that, we also tend to signal, “And please don’t interrupt me from my work.” Which may very well have been part of what happened in our studies here.
And then there’s what Ethan Bernstein calls “the transparency paradox.”

BERNSTEIN: Very simply, the transparency paradox is the idea that increasingly transparent, open, observable workplaces can create less transparent employees...

Let’s say you’ve been really productive all morning; now you want to take a break. You want to check your fantasy-football lineup; you want to look up some recipes for dinner. But you don’t want everyone in the office, especially your boss, to see what you’re doing. So: you do it anyway but you’re constantly looking over your shoulder in case you need to shut down the fantasy-football or recipe tabs.

BERNSTEIN: That has implications for productivity, because we spend time on it. We spend energy on it. We spend effort on it. We tend to believe these days that we get our best work done when we can be our authentic selves. Very few of us get up on a stage in front of a large audience, which is somewhat of how some people encounter the open office, and feel we can be our authentic selves...

BLOOM: … if I go discuss with my colleague or my manager in an open office, I’m terrified that other people would hear. They may pass judgment or rumors can go around...

One piece of research I did that connected very much to the open office was the benefits of working from home. So working from home has a terrible reputation amongst many people. The nickname “shirking from home.” So I decided to do a scientific study. So we got a large online travel agency to ask a division who wanted to work from home. And we then had them randomize employees by even or odd birthdays into working at home versus working in the office...

It’s just much quieter working from home. They complained so often about the amount of noise and disruption going on in the office. They’re all in an open office and they tell us about people having boyfriend problems, there’s a cake in the breakout room. The World Cup sweepstake. I mean, the most amazing was the woman that told us about her cubicle neighbor who’d have endless conversations with her mum about medical problems, including horrible things like ingrown toenails and some kind of wart issue. I mean what could be more distracting than that?

Not surprisingly, in that case, the open office was devastating for her productivity... working from home raises productivity by 13 percent. Which is massive. That’s almost an extra day a week. So a), much more productive, massively more productive, way more than anyone predicted. And b), they seemed a lot happier; their attrition rates, so how frequently they quit. Part of this was they didn’t have the commute and all the uncertainty. And they didn’t have to take sick days off. But the other big driver is it’s just so much quieter at home.

DUBNER: You also do write, though, that one of the downsides of working from home was promotion became less likely...

BLOOM: Yes. We don’t know why, but one argument is “out of sight, out of mind.” They just get forgotten about. And another story would be that actually they need to develop skills of human capital and relationship capital, therefore you need to be in the office to get that, to be promoted. And then the third reason I heard, we talked to people working at home and they’d say, “I don’t want to be promoted, because in order to be promoted, I need to come in the office more so.” I’m happy where I am. It’s not worth it."
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