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Goldman is moving its top executives to open offices — but the science says it'll be a catastrophe for productivity and health

Allana Akhtar , Business Insider US
 Dec 14, 2019, 09:50 PM
Goldman CEO David M. Solomon

Goldman Sachs leaders are ditching stuffy cubicles for an open floor plan - for better or worse.

Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon told New York employees that executives like himself will adopt open offices instead of ones walled with glass, Business Insider's Dakin Campbell reported. Solomon said the move would allow executives greater ability to interact directly with workers.

While the move is one of many modern culture changes Solomon ushered in, open floor plans might lead his workers to resent him.

Years worth of scientific research suggests an open floor plan leaves workers stressed, burned out, dissatisfied, and overall worse at their jobs.

Here's why.

The open office will make you less satisfied with your work, research finds.

Jetta Productions Inc/Getty Images

Back in 2002, a study in the journal Environment and Behavior tracked employees in a Canadian energy company as they transferred from a traditional office to the open plan. As Julie Beck reports for the Atlantic, the results were grim: people reported that they felt worse about their work environment, their co-worker relationships, their performance, and their satisfaction with work after moving into the open office.


The open office takes away your privacy.

Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

If you don't have what a psychologist calls "architectural privacy," or the ability to shut your door to the office, then you won't have "psychological privacy," the ability to control whether you're accessible to the group.

Psychological privacy, Beck says, leads to higher performance and satisfaction. The lack of privacy also means you'll be treated to a constant buzz of background noise. While the bustle of a coffee shop has been found to increase creativity, Scientific American reports that background noise disrupts concentration, impairs memory, and aggravates stress-related illness like migraines or ulcers.


Open offices lead to more physiological stress.

Oli Scarff/ Getty Images

Why do coffee shops aid productivity and open offices hinder it? There's a scientific answer.

UC Berkeley cognitive neuroscientist and workplace productivity consultant Sahar Yousef said human beings are "tribal," meaning they tend to form emotional relationships with their social group.

In an open office, people constantly interact with coworkers with whom they have emotional connections to, Yousef said. Psychologically, humans can become more engaged with the "tribe" around them instead of work tasks.

In a coffee shop, however, humans don't have an emotional connection with anyone around them, meaning they can focus better on work.

"The human brain isn't designed to be in a massive open space," Yousef said. "You're physiologically more stressed out. It's like trying to get work done at a daycare center."


The open office can cheapen your conversations.

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Conversations do happen more frequently in open offices. But they're usually "short and superficial," Time reports, "precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen."

Plus, open offices can cause tension between people sitting near each other. Talking loudly on the phone - a common practice among bankers taking calls from clients - annoys everyone within earshot, says Lynn Taylor, a national workplace expert and the author of "Tame Your Terrible Office Tyrant: How to Manage Childish Boss Behavior and Thrive in Your Job."

"Many employees need quiet time built into their day, and without it, their productivity can suffer," Taylor told Business Insider's Jacquelyn Smith. "Someone handling complex data, financials, or writing an in-depth strategic document is often best served to find a private conference room for those tasks, assuming the employer has built that into the space."


The open office especially aggravates introverts.

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Introverts need privacy the most.

Research suggests that background noise distracts them more than extroverts. Hans Eysneck, a psychologist who did formative work in the study of intelligence and personality, once remarked that solitude leads to people being more creative, since when you're all by your lonesome, you're "concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work."

But where is the introvert to go in the open office? Into a nice set of headphones, for one.


The open office can make you feel exhausted.

Cecilie_Arcurs/Getty Images

Switching between your work and helping coworkers surrounding you - the "spontaneous collaboration" open offices were designed to foster - actually makes you worse at your job.

This is because it takes a huge amount of mental effort to switch between helping your buddy and reacquainting yourself will the complexities of the task at hand. It takes time for the brain to focus on one task, so the body exerts extra energy constantly switching between two jobs. The time wasted in switching between tasks is called a "switch cost," neuroscientist Yousef said.

In effect, always being available to your colleagues means that you're always on the verge of being distracted. As the Wall Street Journal reports, it takes 27 minutes to get back into the flow of a task once you finally get a chance to resume it.


The open office exposes you to other people's germs.

Stockholm University researchers found that people who work in open offices were more likely to take sick leave than folks who worked in private offices, since working so close to your colleague may increase the spread of infection.


The open office tends to bake you beneath fluorescent lights.

Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many open offices have a sea of desks arranged in the interior of the building, away from windows.

This is terrible for many reasons: people exposed to natural light are more alert than their fluorescent-lit peers. Another study shows that people who work without windows get 47 fewer minutes of sleep a night than those who sit next to windows.

The artificially lit workers also get worse sleep overall - and if you get crappy sleep all the time, you'll get sick more often, get mad more easily, and remember less.

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