Like Dr Drang, I’ve noticed some stuff doing the rounds about open offices, with the odd article cropping up now and again on Hacker News. At most I’ve skimmed them, because it really seemed like a really straightforward situation.
Not open = bad, private = good or the other way around, but that selecting an office environment should consider both the kind of work people will be doing and the culture of worker interaction.
People can get solid, thoughtful, involved work done in open offices, like the engineers or journalists Dr Drang mentions. I’ve worked in a newsroom for the last four and half years, and we manage to crank out a whole paper with all of us jammed into the same space.
Would we do a better job if we had private offices? For most workers, I’d wager probably not. But a lot of that is down to what we perceive to be important to completing our tasks — communication and collaboration — and the culture around that — talking to people across the office, asking questions loud enough that almost anyone can hear and answer. When you're dealing with relatively small chunks of work — a story, part of a page — your concentration never gets deep enough for the chatter around you to be a significant problem.
There are certain jobs, such as proofing pages, that do require deeper concentration and I'll admit that I struggle to proof while sat at my desk near the centre of the newsroom (I often retreat into the office that practicality has so far prevented me from moving in to). But the noise that distracts me in this case has two roots (three if you count the reporters): the open-plan office and the culture (of frequent, relatively loud verbal communication).
Let's take Dr Drang's other example: engineers. (I don't mean to pick on him with these references, but his post was a neat framing and response to the open office argument that I can hang my own views on.) It's difficult to tell from the photo of Bell Labs workers, but I imagine that the culture there was different from ours that I've just described. I imagine that there was less loud verbal communication across the room, and also less of an expectation that anyone could interrupt them at any time for any reason. (Or maybe they just had their heads down for the camera.)
You can get work done in an open office; it doesn't fatally undermine productivity. The biggest problem with open offices is that they provide an environment in which a noisy, distracting culture can arise. Not necessarily, not certainly, but possibly. Giving people private offices, on the other hand, limits that — the residents can determine what is an acceptable culture in their office (the person who's happy for anyone to drop by, the person who tolerates no visitors) rather than potentially letting the loudest person in the office determine the conditions.