Now that open offices are the norm, their limitations have become clear. Research indicates that removing partitions is actually much worse for collaborative work and productivity than closed offices ever were. But something as expensive and logistically complicated as an office design is difficult to walk back, so, as Jeff Goldblum wisely intones in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In offices where there are no walls, millions of workers have embraced a work-around to reclaim a little bit of privacy: wireless headphones.
According to Ethan Bernstein, a professor at Harvard Business School who studies organizational behavior, it makes sense that this subtle tactic for avoiding constant interaction has seeped into office environments. “People are very good at creating spaces for themselves, and these days you look at everybody and almost without exception they’re on their phones with headphones in their ears,” he says. In a 2018 study, Bernstein and his team found that open offices decrease face-to-face interaction among co-workers by as much as 70 percent, in stark contrast to the designers’ stated goal of collaborative teamwork.
According to the design psychologist Sally Augustin, all of this irritation has come about because open offices ignore some essential elements of human psychological development. “We get revved up just being around other people, so in a workplace you’ve always got that force energizing you,” she says. “When you’re doing intellectual work, you’ll do it better in an environment that’s generally less energizing.” Although headphones can help filter auditory interruptions, they can’t block visual ones, which Augustin says can be just as disruptive to performance and focus.