I’ve frequently said that I think an office door costs a company a million dollars. As the ongoing debate about open offices continues unabated, I thought I’d say this out loud.
Each office door costs a company a million dollars
I think my estimate may be low. The surprising thing is that the original cost of a door assembly is negligible in my argument. But the reason for the door, to separate and isolate, to acknowledge status, to provide individual focus, to claim real estate, compounds the costs.
The door needs a partition. The partition requires paint or wall covering, and base molding. The partition requires a ceiling. The partition probably requires insulation since the purported purpose is freedom from audible distractions. The partition requires the distribution of power and data to multiple points. The partition requires the distribution of air to each cell rather than a more general distribution in a more open layout. The work setting in the office requires more furniture whether for function or for signaling, including guest chairs. The partition will require light fixtures, switching and circuiting. The size of the office, even if very small, requires more real estate than an individual workstation, so significantly increases the rent. And the office will require more aisle or corridor space to get to it.
The one office now generates competitive demand. If you get an office to support your need for focus, I have that need, too. If you get an office because you are entitled to it because you are a manager, I want one too, because I’m a manager, too. Wait! Now I’m a vice president and have greater responsibilities, so I need more office than a manager. So making one office means making many others since others share whatever reason the office for one was constructed. Construction costs, energy costs, and rent costs begin to multiply.
Now, watch the behaviors associated with an office. First, many may assume that meeting someone in their office requires an invitation. So many may not engage the office-holder in meaningful conversation until the invitation is issued. But now, since the manager justified his office because of his need to deal frequently with sensitive personnel matters, I just don’t want that invitation and, if I get it, don’t want anybody to see me there. Even in a more relaxed office, without these social protocols and stigmas, the conversation with the person in the office takes place while leaning on the door frame at the entry to the office. There is a certain resistance that is projected and felt with the implied threshold that comes with a door. Those doorframe conversations are also clearly an interruption, a distraction to the person who needed an office free from distraction. That conversation now costs organizational progress on both sides of the door, first through hesitance and then through distraction. So whether for culture, or implication, or just signals generated by form, communication in the office slows down. All of the reason for going to the office, to accomplish things with others that we can't do alone, is now negated.
Now, of course, we are much more mobile at work. We have ubiquitous wifi. We carry lightweight computers and may even no longer have desk phones. We are no longer bound to place. These tools, and the nature of work itself now enable a higher level of mobility in the office. We are in constant interaction with others as we try to advance the purpose of the organization and get stuff done. That is, while we may have asked for the door to be free of distraction, we are out distracting others continuously. In fact, in almost every place where analysts have observed or measured the level of occupancy of an office, most report having seen the space used less than 40% of the time. All of that cost for a usage of less than three hours a day, less than the equivalent of two days a week.
Construction cost, energy cost, rent cost, slowed communication, blocked communication, underutilization, cultural conflict, miscommunicated values, opportunity costs, and more. So, all of those who say that the only justification for an open office is to reduce costs may be right.
Maybe my estimate is too low. Maybe a door actually costs an organization more than a million dollars!