Open floor plans crush us, both at work and at school

In the last few decades there has been a huge push to develop an open floor plan in most offices. Yet now that the research is in, we know open floor plans are terrible for the workplace.

The same can be said of the classroom. There are no cubbies, cubicles, or private areas in a classroom, which is important for a teacher who is attempting to educate and discipline up to thirty kids at a time. And there is research to show that the detriments of an open work environment are not limited to one age group—young people dislike the open environment as well.

It’s amazing to me, though, that while the workplace is reacting very fast to the new research, shifting to give more private space to each worker, schools have shown scant response to the fact that kids need privacy to learn:

1. Kids need to be able to get away during the day.
We learn best when we have a way to be alone. We might not use that space all the time, but a sense of privacy boosts performance for adults but also for children who are trying to think. This seems to me to be similar to how I carry around a Xanax in my purse. I don’t need it very often, but knowing it’s there gives me the strength to get through moments in the day when I feel too much stress.

2. Constant low-grade noise is unhealthy.
Office workers who were exposed to the background noise of an office for three hours emitted a fight-or flight response in their brainwaves. That same background noise permeates schools, and I can remember many times when I went to the bathroom in grade school just to get some peace and quiet.

3. People get more done outside the institution.
It cannot be said, however, that people are more productive when they’re in the office, and in fact, the Harvard Business Review published research to show that people get more work done when they have control over their own environment. The conclusion of the research is to let more people work from home.

Education professors like Peter Gray show how the research applies to children as well:  they learn better when you give them control over their environment. Yet we expect kids to spend the majority of their day trying to learn in an environment they cannot control.

4. Introverts can’t think in an open office.
Nearly half the world is introverted. That doesn’t mean they hate people, or they are shy, or they don’t talk. What introversion signifies is the way someone gets ideas and recharges. And in both cases, the answer is that introverts do it alone.

The need for appropriate office space for introverts is so significant that Steelcase hired the author of the bestselling book about introverts, Susan Cain, to oversee design for a new line of office furniture especially for introverts. (Pictured above.)

Which begs the question, What are the introvert kids in school doing?

Suffering in open classroom plans. Because giving each kid space of their own at school requires too much space. Offices are willing to do it because they make money based on productivity. But no schools gets more money by making average performers perform better. In the US we only give schools money for bringing low performers up to average. So there is little incentive to rescue introverts from their classroom hell as long as they are scoring average on tests.


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29 replies
  1. Anna
    Anna says:

    I remember kids used to set up two hard cover text books to create walls on their desks in school. Then they would hunch down so that their faces were hidden from view, just to get a little privacy. This was totally common practice in my elementary school.

    This post also brought to mind my 5.5 year time at an office job. One thing that made it appealing to me was the high degree of privacy I had in my light gray cubicle which was constructed using among other things, thick, sound absorbing fabric. There were also sound absorbent tiles on the ceiling. It was like my little cockpit in a rocket ship, in which I could tend to all matters with liberty and very little interruption. Spaces like that permit concentration. If my work desk is in open to view of others, I cannot concentrate at all. I get totally weird, in fact. (I am an INTP.)

  2. Mark Kenski
    Mark Kenski says:

    I understand that J.K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter book in coffee shops, but this was mainly because walking to them, her daughter would fall asleep and nap while she wrote. To the best of my knowledge, she did not write any of her subsequent novels the same way; once she had a choice, she wrote in quiet.

    Can you picture Einstein going to the university cafeteria with his notes to puzzle out a particularly vexing problem? I sure can’t. Of course people can’t think very well in these spaces. They are designed with one thing in mind: so a large number of people can be supervised by very few.

    This is an often-overlooked benefit of schooling at home: the child can be alone enough to work on something or read or write or paint or practice music, but can do so with a high degree of safety because a parent is near.

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      Alone enough is the key, isn’t it? It’s not a binary question. You can also suffer from alone too much. My son is animated by practicing violin outside on a sunny day – plays longer, focuses better. He likes to be outside where neighbors and passers-by can hear and greet him. Inside by himself is alone too much.

      Although I am a confirmed introvert, I frequently chose to work in noisy, populated places (e.g. bars) because it improved my concentration. Today there is a “group work space” in my neighborhood so that people who work from home can work in proximity to others. In fact, I _can_ picture Einstein going to a university cafeteria to puzzle out a hard problem, because I would be likely to do so (though I’m no Einstein).

      I did enjoy having an office with a door when I was corporate, but I also walked around a lot because face time is so important for understanding and progress. I enjoyed having a private office in the library when I was a PhD student, but I didn’t always use it; I was found in a lobby seat as often.

      I agree that the open-plan office is a terrible mistake, as is the open-plan school (PT missed this 70s trend in this piece). I agree that the reason for a classroom with 20-30 students is scaled around the supervisory ability of a teacher, not the needs of the student. But I also don’t believe the best solution for most, let alone all, students and workers is private offices for everybody all the time.

      If I were to design a school or workplace, I’d think about creating multiple types of spaces: the closed, classroom, the private office, semi-private cubbies, large cafeteria, social intermediate spaces like hallways with seating, and figure out how to make it possible for students or workers to transit among the spaces per their own needs and choices.

      • Mark Kenski
        Mark Kenski says:

        Thanks for explaining that, Commenter. You changed my mind by reminding me that I really cannot generalize my own “introversion” to others. My experience is probably quite uncommon.

        I tend to think of myself as simply “very introverted,” when the reality is more complex and unusual: a mixture of social anxiety, pronounced adult-ADHD, a generalized hypersensitivity–the fusion of which means I’m almost always looking for more quiet.

        I’m glad to read that you have struck a healthier balance.

  3. Rayne of Terror
    Rayne of Terror says:

    My school district is very very into constant group work right now and it sounds like hell to me. I have asked upper elementary and jr. high teachers what about the introverts?! What I see in fourth grade and what I hear from jr. high is the solution is they put the introverts in groups together. That way they get a group where they don’t have to talk to each other. Each person can focus on their own work and share as needed. Also, our public school classrooms are 16-22, not 30.

    I have had an office with a door since my first professional job after college as a political press secretary. My husband has worked in cubes his whole IT career. I considered a job with his company and he told me he didn’t think the significantly higher pay was worth losing the office with a door.

    • Amy A
      Amy A says:

      I always hated group work in school because it meant not only did I have to do my work but I had to figure out how to make things work with people I didn’t even want to deal with. And because I was responsible , it also meant I ended up doing the most work so I would get a decent score. But I think this was mostly in college.

      I have read group work is becoming more common with the younger ages to encourage group-think, peer pressure in accepting ideas.

      Working in a cubicle gives the illusion of having privacy–except that you can hear what everyone is saying on the other side of their little walls.

    • Teryn
      Teryn says:

      It sounds like your public school class sizes are smaller than average. I guess ours in Oregon are larger. Here each class has 25-39 students. I was told they will not add another class for a grade until the class size reaches 40 students.

  4. Jill
    Jill says:

    Extroverts have a hard time in an open office too! I am very social and easily excitable (no I don’t have ADHD). This has been a pattern since I was in grade school and constantly got “progress reports” sent home saying that I socialize too much and distract others. I even got my own row in front of the teacher in 6th grade- so then I would chat him up!

    Yes, I love working collaboratively, but I have to get solo work done too. Calculating other distractions and responsibilities- phone calls, office drop ins, incoming emails, scheduled meetings, etc..I can get 8 hours of work done in the 2-3 hours before or after normal office hours. I even change into my “thinking pants” aka yoga pants. I need to be comfortable to do my best work.

  5. Dana Phillips
    Dana Phillips says:

    I hate to admit it, but you’re right about open floor plans are not always the best. My four year old, extroverted daughter even blossoms playing in her room (that space with four walls and window). Her little imagination runs wild. And when she needs her “people fix” she comes out plays with mommy, daddy and her little brother.
    Ditto for my three year old, introverted son.

    I guess you can file this article under yet another reason why home schooling wins in education.

  6. kina
    kina says:

    When I used to Work on Wall Street in a firm with open floor design, I always got my best thinking done in the bathroom stall. lol

  7. Sallie Borrink
    Sallie Borrink says:

    I’m extremely introverted as in I work best and am emotionally happiest with uninterrupted hours in a row (INFJ). When I was in elementary school the only thing I wanted to do during recess was to be left alone! I would wander around reading a book or maybe talk to the recess lady for a few minutes. For a while I brought in my Barbies and wanted to play with them in the library (alone), but that was quickly nixed because they wanted me to go outside and play with the other kids. I wasn’t a loner and I had friends, but by the time I had sat through a few hours of class instruction I had reached my max of people.

    I now happily work from home. I tried working on-site for a client once many years ago and I lasted about two days in a cubicle in an open concept. I thought I would go insane from the constant noise, motion and general busyness.

  8. jessica
    jessica says:

    My husband is an I.

    He currently works in the open-floor plan you mention. He thinks it’s ok, but he does miss his large Madison Avenue office from time to time- at the time he didn’t care for it.
    He liked the open floor plan in his beginning years, hated his cubicle space in suburb USA, thought his big Office was ok (while I thought it was fantastic! I’d stop in for coffees and lounge on the sofa), and now back to open floor.

    It depends on the set of people around and the environment. Some places blare terrible music throughout etc.

    Right now he is barely at his desk as he spends 90% of his time in meetings, then comes home and does the actual work. This works for him, but does take a chunk of time out of family life. Maybe that’s what everyone really wants?
    Face to Face meeting spaces, then go home and do the work necessary?

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      I have been to my husband’s work several times in the “approved” areas. It is all open, you have your typical but large-sized cubicle farm, clear glass conference rooms for everyone to look into, and then Elon is right there with a tiny office along side the cubicle farm. Then mission control is all open to see, then the factory where it is like (at least for my star trek geeky self) one can get lost in idealism. But it is all very open and loud. I would need ear protection to be there on a daily basis. I am extremely sensitive to sounds.

  9. Lindsay
    Lindsay says:

    I don’t think maximising work over anything else is the best use of a kid’s school hours yesterday. When I was a kid I had all afternoon alone everyday to do homework etc. School time was for hanging with my friends.

  10. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    The public elementary school that our 2 oldest daughters attended before we started homeschooling was the very open-concept design. For grades k through 3, 2 classes were in one large open room which the teachers divided into two spaces with bookcases. The noise level was terrible. Grades 4 through 6 were all in one large open wing with the media center (library) in the center. Parents asked the school board every year to please put up some walls, but it never happened. The thought process behind the open design was that students would gain so much more from the influx of knowledge from the surrounding classes. Really, it was just chaotic and distracting. Another example of outdated, irrelevant, education theory being forced upon kids.

    • jessica
      jessica says:

      I’m trying to imagine teachers giving instruction over one another…they like to be pretty loud as it is!

    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      I went to a school like that too. It looked like a clover-shaped spaceship, three domes linked in the middle to a sort of stupa. One wing had K-5, another wing 6-12, and I can’t recall what was in the other wing.

      I know there was a caf, a gym, a library, and a theatre all in there somewhere. The dome construction was intended to allow for no internal walls between classrooms because that would be open and flexible and foster communication (or some such drivel).

      In practice, classrooms were marked off with bookshelves, cabinets, and chalkboards, making it look and sound like a junkyard. From any given classroom, you could hear every other class, all day long. It had over 500 students in each wing.

      We had some trailers out in the parking lot for extras like the art class and the (thank the gods) gifted program. It was always a relief to go out to the trailers. To tell the truth, it was a relief to get into trouble and be put in isolation – that was usually a room with a door that closed, though sometimes it was just a box made of chalkboards.

      That was the worst school I ever went to. I just went to their website and saw their goals for 2015 include reaching 50% “college and career ready” at graduation.

      • Ellen
        Ellen says:

        The “gifted and talented” program at our school (which our oldest was selected for) was in a closed classroom with a small group of kids exploring topics off-curriculum in a less-structured environment. (No desks and they didn’t have to raise hands to talk.) My daughter enjoyed this experience and gained a lot from it, but it was only for a couple hours a week, and only one girl and one boy from each class were selected for it. So sad to think how many more kids would benefit from this style of learning but never have access to it. It has always bothered me that a few kids are labeled, “gifted and talented” when all kids are, but the system can only recognize and address the gifts and talents that fit into the narrow definition of someone else’s theory.

        • Commenter
          Commenter says:

          It was just a few hours a week for me too. But they were the most important hours of the school week.

          We didn’t do anything spectacular, just read, talk, and play games. But it was the only time in the week when I was comfortable at school.

          I shall always remember our teacher, named (seriously) Violet Farmer, who was intelligent and treated us like adults, distinguishing her from all other people at the school. I remember we all had our own coffee cups in the trailer. Shabby though it was, it was an oasis and a lifeline for me. I think I might have drunk myself to death at eleven if it weren’t for Mrs. Farmer.

          I don’t know how many kids suffer as much as I did – and my suffering as a kid played a major part in my adult readiness to homeschool – but I hope as many kids as possible get a Vi Farmer in their lives.

  11. Hilary
    Hilary says:

    I’m an introvert who taught first grade for several years. I happened to have one of the only non-square classrooms in the building, and while my colleagues felt sorry for me for the “weird” space I had to work with, I loved the nooks and crannies it created.

    When I was teaching I created a classroom layout that used bookcases, charts, easels, storage units, etc. to visually separate little spaces around the room. At first this wasn’t done for any conscious or student-centered reason – it’s just how I set things up. But slowly I realized that when I gave the kids the freedom to choose where they worked, they all gravitated towards these “hiding spots”. And while my principal did express her concern that I couldn’t monitor their time on task closely enough in these spots, I actually found that – almost without exception – they worked longer and with more focus when they were in spaces that felt like they were on their own. And in an extra benefit, the whole classroom was quieter because they were all actually focused on what they were doing.

    One ah-ha moment that helped me commit to creating these private spaces in my classroom happened in my second year of teaching. I had rearranged the classroom for some reason I can’t remember and without realizing it eliminated a bunch of the previous “hiding spots.” In the following week one of my most emotionally intense children started running out of the classroom and sprinting half-way down the hall to a window well whenever he got upset. My principal was beside herself about this child constantly on the loose and we were ready to call in behavioral evaluations and psychologists to figure out what was going on.

    And then I realized what had happened – my rearrangement had taken away his places to be alone inside the classroom. Now when he had to get a break from all of us his only option was to leave. I quickly put the classroom back to the way it was – and he immediately stopped running out of the room.

    So yes, I think space to be alone and in quiet is more important than we traditionally give it credit for both in classrooms and in offices. Now that I’m not teaching I’m eternally grateful for the option of shutting my office door and blocking out the rest of the world whenever I need to.

  12. Holly
    Holly says:

    As a designer of work spaces, open office space is and can be very important for a variety of reasons. Office intensive space vs an open plan is very dependent on the company, the work, etc. There are a multitude of ways to create private spaces and mitigate noise. I think we have to keep in mind that all offices isn’t any better.

    I also am a product of the open classroom plan, 4th through 6th grade. Oh how horrible that was for an extroverted ADHD kid. It was too much fun. I loved seeing what else was going on all around, never really focusing on what I needed to do. No walls, just a huge room with 5 classrooms divided by chalkboards and cubbies. Not a lot of learning happened for me.

    I now work in an open office environment. I don’t think the classroom environment equates to the work environment. We all have to learn and adapt to our environments and there isn’t an ideal one unless you work for yourself and can have everything just as you like.

  13. redrock
    redrock says:

    interesting discussion – architecture really influences how we interact, how often do we bump into people, do we have space to sit somewhere quietly and think, do we have jobs where frequent interaction and short paths are critical? And then fold in the different needs for different personalities! I went to a primary school with two grade levels in one room and liked to listen to the higher grade level but then found my own stuff incredibly boring. Here is an interesting article about building to the profession (or in some cases not) and how severely it impacted the work.

    (please click on it – it is not about physics but about architecture)

  14. Heather Sanders
    Heather Sanders says:

    I don’t know why this post made me think of all the times I propped up my binders around my desk at school so I could work in private.

    Obviously, it was an illusion of privacy, but it FELT more private. Especially when I finished my work and could lay my head down and sleep.

    Plus, I wasn’t prone to helping those with wandering eyes. I know. Stingy.

  15. Holly Gates
    Holly Gates says:

    I guess I’m in the tiny minority who enjoys working in an open office and thinks it is superior.

    I am an engineer and work mostly with other engineers, and I like to be able to easily approach people for a chat on something without feeling like I am entering their private space. Often a conversation is overheard that is relevant to someone not initially involved and they can jump in or be called in easily. At the last startup I worked at we moved into a new building renovated for us, and myself and a few others really pulled for an open plan. I think it does foster cooperation, and I personally felt isolated any time I have spent time in a dank and tiny cubicle, with an annoying nominal wall between me and others which doesn’t provide any real privacy. Anyway, lots of people were apprehensive about it and we priced out white noise generators and sound absorbing surfaces. But it just wasn’t a big problem. Well at least I didn’t think so!

    Really the choices at the office are cubicle or open. Maybe if you are an exec you can have a sweet office, but the reality is that if you are going to give everyone their space it will be tiny and horrible, not spacious and full of natural light.

    I’m not sure how much stock I put in personality types, but the descriptions of ISTP resonate most with me. I do appreciate plenty of time alone working on my projects, but I find I can easily tune out whatever is going on around me and focus on what I am doing. Suppose not everyone is like that though :)

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      no, most peoples brains need about 10-15 minutes to refocus after an interruption. So the open office space indeed only serves a few people. How many do you see sitting at their place with headphones? That is an indication that they are desperately trying to focus on their work. And yes, if you have interrupted someone for the third time in 10 minutes they might simply give up on focused work and talk giving the impression of a great collaborative environment.

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