Open offices were supposed to liberate us from cubicle-land. In the 1960s, the German design group Quickborner decided that grouping desks together would increase efficiency and de-emphasize status. They dubbed it Bürolandschaft, or “office landscape." Open plans are also meant to enhance collaboration: Perhaps overhearing your colleague's every mutter will lead to some serendipitous insights. ("Eureka! Steve, too, can't get Twitter to load.")
But we've long since entered the backlash phase. "A cost-effective panopticon,"sneered one commenter on the tech site Y Combinator. When the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed various types of office plans in 2011, as Maria Konnikova wrote for the New Yorker, "He found that, though open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission ... they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction." A 2008 meta-analysis in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management found that open plans are associated with conflict, high blood pressure, and increased turnover.
These free-flowing "landscapes" can be particularly traumatic for the lone wolves among us. As my colleague Julie Beck described for our magazine recently, introverts are far more sensitive to everything from background noise to the caffeine from the communal coffeemaker.
Introverts tend to draw their energy from long stretches of alone time. To determine whether you might be an introvert, see if you can understand these 27 problems.
Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, understands how introverts must suffer amid the loud munching on Trader Joe's paneer tikka and the cacophony of the "ideation sesh" unfolding a few desks over. She has partnered with Steelcase, the office furniture maker, to create new types of office spaces that will allow introverts to both work and respite in peace. Some of the new modules will house desks, others will contain couches, and others still will have yoga mats. All will have walls.
"These are spaces where people can innovate," Cain told Fast Company's Ariel Schwartz. "Solitude is a crucial ingredient in innovation."
Each room is built with glass that, according to Steelcase, is 100 percent soundproof and whose opacity can be adjusted for added privacy.
The first prototypes will roll out this month at the NeoCon design conference, and they will start being commercially available this summer. The rooms start at $15,000 a piece. Of course, if your boss had that kind of money to spend on your work habitat, you probably wouldn't be in an open office to begin with.