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Why do people love open offices?

Some people just need an audience

Megan Preston Meyer
Megan Preston Meyer

Most of us are facing the reality that someday, somehow, we will have to return to an office.

A few lucky people work at places that have decided to go 100% remote, but for those of us whose employers don’t follow as many #VanLife Instagram accounts, we’re slowly coming to terms with the idea of leaving our cozy little standing desk in the living room and rejoining the huddled masses at our standing desk in a much larger room. At least this one has exposed beams.

It will be nice to see colleagues in 3D again, but what about productivity? Open office plans worked for the industrial weaving process 30 years ago when your company’s headquarters was a blanket factory, but it’s less conducive to the work you’re doing today.

It’s loud. There are distractions. People wander around and make eye contact and engage you in conversation when you very clearly have Stack Overflow Googling to do. But some people seem to thrive in this environment.

Why do some people love open offices?

Maybe they need an audience.

The idea of social facilitation, first discussed in 1965 by Robert Zajonc, indicates that people perform differently when working with others than when alone. This applies not just to groupwork - the effect can be triggered by the ‘mere presence’ of another human being.

Multiple subsequent studies have shown that working in the vicinity of others can affect performance: we do complex tasks poorly when others are watching, but do simple tasks well. It’s a human example of the Yerkes-Dodson law, which states that performance increases due to pressure up to a certain point, and then it starts to decrease.

Side note: Yerkes and Dodson did their original experiment on dancing mice, which were evidently a thing in 1908. They gave them varying voltages of electric shocks to see how quickly they learned to avoid a black box, which leads to the question, "Would psychology even exist without electricity?"

Anyway.

Your colleagues who love open offices might be using the social ‘pressure’ to perform optimally. It’s the same reason that people study in coffee shops – even though no one is actually looking over your shoulder (creepy), they potentially could, so you have to be at your best. Background noise and a pseudo-audience help some people to perform at the top of their bell curve.

“Aha,” you say. “Social facilitation makes easy tasks easier, but hard tasks harder. If they enjoy open offices and I don’t, QED, my job must be more complex.”

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Let’s not get judgy. Some jobs, and some tasks within those jobs, require more focus than others. And laws, at least in psychology, aren’t actually laws.

You can work in an open office if you have to, even if you’re doing complex work. Get yourself some noise-cancelling headphones and a Do Not Disturb sign. Listen to white noise.

If all else fails, petition your boss to implement a more flexible remote-work policy. Step 1: Turn off all his #DancingMice TikTok notifications and set him up with #VanLife instead.

Why Do People...?Office