I may be old-fashioned, but there are just some non-negotiable aspects of an acceptable office work environment. Since the typical American office employee spends an average of eight to 12 hours per day rotting away in a fluorescent-lit room, there are certain comforts to be taken in this type of habitat. The workplace should be secure and have adequate safety precautions in place. Technology and systems should be somewhat updated and useable. Role expectations should be outlined appropriately. And, most certainly, every employee is entitled to at least a semi-private workspace.
Often called “workspaces of the future”, open plan office designs were actually first developed in Europe in the 1950s, although they didn’t gain traction in the United States until the late 1990s. As technology usage has rapidly increased and knowledge-based jobs have multiplied, many organizations have shifted to this style, touting increased collaboration, space efficiency, and better company culture. However, a vast number of studies have shown open floor plans actually drastically reduce productivity, decrease job satisfaction, and increase sick day usage due to easy cold and flu transmission. What can look sleek and modern and feel innovative at first encounter can actually be a trap to make employees feel under-valued and disrespected—because, just as most children growing up wish relentlessly for their own bedroom away from their siblings, every adult deserves their own, comfortable space in which to productively complete their assigned tasks.
I’ve worked in the finance field for about a decade now, experiencing a multitude of work space arrangements. For the past several years, I have been employed with a local municipality, calling an extremely large cube with tall walls and windows my home for 40-60+ hours per week. I will admit, my current situation is one to be envied, especially for my personality type: I am something in between an extrovert and introvert, requiring regular human interaction and white noise or low chatter while still appreciating a secluded space for focusing on intricate projects. My cubicle is more like a centrally-located office, with tall walls, bright light shining through gigantic windows, a huge desk, tons of storage, and bulletin boards I have decorated with various signs and trinkets. While I am one of the few “sensitive, emotional, outgoing” people in my group, we do all enjoy making our spaces our own and having breathing room while still being able to easily interact with those around us. It’s an ideal setup, and we have all agreed our employer, while not always the best in making cultural decisions, has done a solid job in catering to most character types and work styles with this design.
I’m not at all unhappy in my current position, and aside from a few nuances, it is not at a bad place to work. I make a solid salary for my experience level and workload, and the health insurance and pension benefits are unmatched. I have been given many opportunities to grow and thrive while working on complex projects. Throw in the aforementioned, ideal, office-cube floorplan of everyone’s dreams, and the job is undoubtedly above-average quality. However, when an opportunity came up for a higher-level position two minutes from my house, I could not say no to an interview—especially when they gave me the six-figure salary range. In my usual, non-complacent nature, I proceeded optimistically, open to whatever was about to be tossed my way. Following a fabulous initial interview with the Senior Manager, I was scheduled for a lengthy, half-day interview with the entire working team and the SVP, and after two hours of excellent, productive meetings with people who I felt I bonded well with, I was brought to the team’s work area for my first glance at my potential, all-day future.
Suddenly, all of my hopes and dreams were dashed as a completely open floor plan came into view.
I am not going to lie, I threw up in my mouth a bit. Everything about the success of the process so far quickly escaped my mind as I scanned over a gigantic room full of row after row of standing/sitting tables, separated only by two-foot high filing cabinets. Each set of computer monitors was back-to-back, causing every employee’s face to be only inches from their counterpart’s. There was no space for personal items, no place to hang a picture, and hardly any room at all to even spread ledger-sized reports across the desk unless you moved the keyboard and mouse.
“This new office space is so innovative! Everyone—even the CEO—sits in this style, on every floor. Nobody has an office or cube, and we are all equal. It’s so collaborative!” my current interviewer touted, doing her best to talk up the grim situation I was assessing.
“Um…great!” I choked, trying my best not to burst into tears of disappointment.
I understand I should have just called it then and returned to work for the day. But instead, I spent the next three hours reconciling in my mind how the salary and opportunities could outweigh the negative. Towards the end of the interview, when the Senior Manager asked my take on the job and began confirming salary range and talking start dates, I told him I would need to assess my current job and if I wanted to leave, but yes, I could see myself with the team. And I really could see myself working alongside of these awesome people—just not in such an environment.
I spent the next several days in complete turmoil. I wasn’t even 30 yet, so making six figures per year in Las Vegas, a city known for its moderate cost of living, would be great for my husband and future family. The salary they were offering would be an equivalent of $215,000 in New York City and $165,000 in San Francisco. I was accomplished and successful by the world’s standards—I had arrived, and my multiple degrees had finally paid off! Additionally, I would be gaining fantastic experience and more leadership opportunities, have the chance to travel and work internationally, and I was even offered a semi-flexible work agreement to coincide with my musical passions outside of my career. Having a numbers mind, I crunched everything, and I knew exactly how much my retirement savings and monthly income would increase, after taxes, right down to the lesser mileage burden on my vehicle. Everything about this job was perfect—except for the awful open workspace situation.
Needless to say, I was sick to my stomach when I called and turned down the job, but I knew it was the best thing to do for my own sanity. At first, I felt as though I had wasted their time and my own vacation day, but I guess I never would have known about the workspaces if I hadn’t visited the office. In the past, I’ve never had any reason to ask during phone interviews how the office is set up, but now I know. I have friends and family members who severely disagree with my decision and have bluntly stated so, telling me I am too picky and need to get over it. I have had coworkers who would love to leave our organization tell me I need to reconsider. But still, I have several sources of support, all of whom have “survived” open work environment themselves, who have honestly told me I made a good decision…and they themselves would never again return to a fully open environment
So, as I enter my perfectly neat, super large, high-walled, private space in the morning, I will return happy and satisfied, thankful to have a job that appreciates me enough to give me a vast workspace to complete my tasks in peace, cares about my health enough to partition me away from colds and the flu, and still allows me the ability to converse with those around me at my leisure. You may all think I am crazy, but money is not the only source of appreciation—workspace matters as well, I can assure you.