In 1973, my high school, Acton-Boxborough Regional, in Acton, Massachusetts, moved to a sprawling brick building at the foot of a hill. Inspired by architectural trends of the preceding decade, the classrooms in one of its wings didn’t have doors. The rooms opened up directly onto the hallway, and tidbits about the French Revolution, say, or Benjamin Franklin’s breakfast, would drift from one classroom to another. Distracting at best and frustrating at worst, wide-open classrooms went, for the most part, the way of other ill-considered architectural fads of the time, like concrete domes. (Following an eighty-million-dollar renovation and expansion, in 2005, none of the new wings at A.B.R.H.S. have open classrooms.) Yet the workplace counterpart of the open classroom, the open office, flourishes: some seventy per cent of all offices now have an open floor plan.
The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the nineteen-fifties, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve. In June, 1997, a large oil and gas company in western Canada asked a group of psychologists at the University of Calgary to monitor workers as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees’ satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.