Open Offices Back In Vogue -- Thanks To Millennials

March 31, 2015 | By Neil Howe

This editorial originally appeared in Forbes.

Attention, Millennials: Advertising agency Grey has an office just for you. As reported by PSFK, the company’s New York location has set up a Millennial-only wing called Base Camp. Rather than being seated in separate client account teams, young workers all share desk space in a central area away from their supervisors. It’s the latest iteration of the open-plan office, which has gradually overtaken cubicles as the standard workplace layout as managers look to promote collaboration and cut costs. This design, however, faces growing backlash from older employees fed up with noise and lack of privacy—though it’s likely to continue gaining momentum thanks to Millennial workers eager to bond with their co-workers.

Over the past decade, the open office has become a fixture of the modern workplace. The private offices and high cubicle walls of yesteryear have increasingly given way to workspaces with no or low partitions. These offices often have long rows of tables where staff members work alongside managers and executives. Several big-name companies, including Microsoft, Cisco, andCBRE, have gone even further and established “free-address” workplaces with no assigned seating. Overall, about 70% of U.S. offices have some type of open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association. And platforms like Grind and NeueHouse even rent out similar environments to freelancers who would otherwise work from home.

Many consider open offices a less stuffy alternative to cubicle life. In theory, this design promotes transparency and fairness: Fewer walls and doors make management seem more approachable and encourage information to flow freely. Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg famously applied this model to City Hall, creating “the Bullpen” to encourage openness and communication. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of open offices among Silicon Valley titans—Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo! among them—has made the design shorthand for free-wheeling, innovative enterprise where ideas can be exchanged on the fly.

Companies have also embraced this design for a less utopian reason: It saves money. Open layouts maximize existing space while minimizing costs, particularly in an era when more employees are telecommuting and leaving cubicles empty.

Open Plan Office With View Into Green Meeting Room. (Photo by View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images)

But an increasingly vocal contingent of workers loathes this trend. In a recent study, nearly half of the open-office workers surveyed said they were dissatisfied with sound privacy, while nearly 40% disliked the lack of visual privacy. Detractors also claim that open offices actually worsen the problems they profess to fix, such as promoting camaraderie: People afraid of disturbing their co-workers end up having shorter or more superficial conversations than they otherwise would. “The open-office movement is like some gigantic experiment in willful delusion,” Fast Company senior editor Jason Feifer fumed in a 2013 editorial that was shared nearly 29,000 times across social media.

These frustrations are backed up by a growing body of research. A review of more than a hundred office-environment studies found that workers in open-office settings experience more uncontrolled disruptions, higher amounts of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation than those in standard offices. They fare worse on seemingly every measure of productivity, including attention span, satisfaction, and creative thinking. And it isn’t just the result of more distractions: A 2005 study proposed that open offices also erode employees’ sense of control—a key factor that contributes to morale and team cohesion.

The debate over open offices reflects stark generational differences. Those who are complaining the loudest are older workers, particularly Boomers. Not only does this generation value workplace privacy the most, they also tend to see office space as representative of one’s level of achievement and value. After finding out that his employer would be shifting to an open floor plan and he would lose his office, one Boomer lamented to NPR: “I earned a window. That was important to me.”

Millennials, on the other hand, are this layout’s biggest proponents. This arrangement is well-suited for a group-oriented generation that values the opportunity to socialize, work in teams, and get help from co-workers. Their mobile style of working also means that they don’t equate space with worth and are eager for more egalitarian spaces that encourage everyone to contribute. To be sure, young people’s perceptions of open offices aren’t all positive: According to a 2012 study of Finnish workers, Millennials find conversations and laughter just as distracting as older generations do. But they’re more likely to believe that the trade-offs are worth it.

In moving toward open environments, young adults are also going backward to the workplaces of their grandparents. Back in the 1950s and ‘60s, open bullpens for workers were the norm. This changed with the introduction of the cubicle—a modular system dubbed Action Office II—in 1968. Its creator envisioned it as a way to liberate Boomer workers by giving them more privacy and autonomy—which ended up becoming a double-edged sword as managers arranged them into dreary, uniform “farms” that packed in as many people as possible. Between 1977 and 1997, cubicle sales in America grew 20-fold. And now the walls have begun coming down again—this time spurred by a generation of employees who’d rather collaborate than work alone.

Going forward, it’s likely that the latest incarnation of the open office won’t look like its predecessors. In the light of mounting evidence against a no-walls environment, designers are offering modified spaces that allow for privacy according to job function rather than seniority. While a marketing team, for instance, could benefit from a chatty atmosphere, a writer on deadline might need space to concentrate.

Some tech companies, like AECOM, have created “coding caves” that require total silence; inside, workers aren’t allowed to chat, take phone calls, or play music. And on the main floor, they follow different guidelines governing conversation volume and appropriate times to interrupt colleagues. In some sense, open offices might come to resemble the military—where soldiers have long followed strict protocol in order to operate in close quarters. In this way open offices will not only allow employees to be social, but will also teach them sociability.