Why My Open Office Feels … Walled Off

Raise your hand if you work in an open office. Everyone, yes? Now tell me where you put your stuff.

Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

At work the other day, a Slack message from a co-worker popped up on my screen: “Do you happen to have a tampon?” I quickly responded “Yes,” always happy to help a sister out, then paused, unsure of how to transfer the thing. “You want to come over and grab it or?” I typed. She scurried over to my desk, I did a discreet handoff (not unlike a drug deal), she sneaked back, and we agreed to thank God for Slack (via Slack), because how else would she have asked for something so personal in our very open new open office?

Open offices have been the trend in workplace design for a while now — as of 2014, some 70 percent of office layouts were open — and despite some backlash, they don’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Proponents tout the upsides: collaboration, flexibility, bottom-line savings, attracting millennial workers. But even the biggest fans know all of this comes with a loss of privacy. (New reality: booking a conference room to make a doctor’s appointment.) And though sharing is nothing new to us in 2018 — see: communal tables at restaurants; car rides with strangers — it can feel at odds with how increasingly individualistic and aesthetic-driven our culture has become. Sharing is about more than giving up your personal space — it’s about not being able to personalize your space, either. Designed-for-all means one-size-fits-all, so the shared spaces we exist in — like the offices we spend so much time in — become uniform. The modern office lives and dies by 50 shades of gray.

And as it turns out, the segment of our society that most likes to personalize spaces is pretty much women. We represent 81 percent of Pinterest pinners; we watch more HGTV than men; we care about the color of a duvet cover. This has more to do with feeling good than looking good: Being in a space we’ve customized imbues a sense of ownership; it makes us happy, which leads us to work better and enjoy our jobs more.

Our spaces also hold our stuff. There’s the stuff we need: Tide pens, makeup, snacks, deodorant, those products for that time of month. There’s also the personal stuff we like to have around: family photos in pretty frames, art by our kids, an inspirational quote that reminds us to keep kicking ass.

In our old digs, one stylish editor decorated her entire office in white — there were even white paper clips — except for the hot pink alligator planter. Another editor put doilies on cabinets and kept flowers on the shelves — it was a maternal space that said: Plop yourself down and let it all out. “You want to work in a space that’s inspiring, that feels like home … somewhere you don’t mind spending so much of your life in,” says the white-everything editor.

Of course, not all women feel compelled to personalize. Though I’ve propped up three measly — but beautifully written! — cards from friends, my area does sort of look like I just moved in and never finished unpacking my boxes. Maybe by the time companies start luring in Gen Z workers, they’ll once again recognize the power of having a wall to hang some photos on.

Published as “Open and Closed” in the April 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.