An open office is never more silent than when there’s something to talk about. It may typically be as noisy as an engine room: conference calls, creaking chairs, that coworker who can’t stop coughing. But as soon as something happens—someone slams his phone or sends an angry staff-wide email—the workplace snaps into order. Postures straighten, people focus on their computers, and cacophony fades beneath a swell of typing. These moments must resemble the picture-perfect efficiency the open office’s architects envisioned—except people aren’t working. They’re chatting with each other.
In a business world overrun by open offices, Internet chat is the closest to a private conversation many employees can get. Nearly 70 percent of offices use an open design, according to The New Yorker, which means 70 percent of offices are wanting for secluded spaces where coworkers can talk freely. “At the last magazine I worked for, everyone had offices,” Jason Feifer wrote in Fast Company. “We’d pop into each other’s offices at first to ask a question or work out some problem, and soon, because nobody could hear us, we’d transition into long and personal conversations. … But out in the open? It’s far harder to get to know coworkers.”
These circumstances have pushed a lot of workplace friendship essentially underground: When you don’t have a door to close, the safest way to evade eavesdroppers is to converse silently on your computers. A former coworker and I used to keep a running Gchat conversation throughout the day, even though she sat so nearby I could hear her breathing when she had a cold. It wasn’t only that we didn’t want other people to know what we were saying. It also felt rude to speak out loud: Our voices might distract other people who were trying to focus.
Online chat, however, can be its own nasty form of distraction. Academics initially saw instant messaging as a potential boon to productivity. It was much easier to multitask while instant messaging, for instance, than it was while talking on the phone or in person. Some researchers saw IM’s value precisely in its ability to facilitate friendly conversations in split offices, where the absence of “water cooler talk” left workers feeling isolated and hampered team projects. The challenge, these researchers thought, would be getting employees to adopt IM even though it served no apparent purpose: “IM is a tool for which most workplace users do not have a clear, well-defined need,” they wrote in 2002. “One does not generally hear people in the workplace asking for IM tools to help them get their work done.”
IM found its way into the workplace anyway—aided, no doubt, by Google, which automatically provides Gchat accounts to workers whose businesses use Gmail. And now that instant messaging is a fact of office life, a lot of the relevant research has shifted from how IM might help us work to how it actually makes work harder. One study, for example, showed that workers who noticed an IM alert took less than two seconds to check the new message—and needed eight minutes to get back to the task the message interrupted. Interruptions set off what researchers call “chains of diversion,” where workers rapidly cycle through tasks rather than concentrating on one and seeing it to completion. “When people are constantly interrupted, they develop a mode of working faster (and writing less) to compensate for the time they know they will lose by being interrupted,” the authors of a related study, “The Cost of Interrupted Work,” found. “Yet working faster with interruptions has its cost: people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort.”
I’ve taken this a bit personally, as one of my primary ways for coping with workplace stress is to engage a coworker in casual IM conversation—an action, it turns out, that may actually be making work more stressful. There are less quantifiable drawbacks I’ve noticed to office IMing too. For one, it erases important visual clues to workplace social dynamics. Before, you could learn a lot about office politics simply by watching who spoke with whom, even if you had no idea what they were saying. On IM, however, anyone could be gossiping with any number of people at any time, and no one else would have any idea. Also, IM chats between two people can’t really grow into group conversations, like face-to-face interactions often do. There’s something vaguely conspiratorial in an office where, instead of open conversations, everyone is essentially whispering in each other’s ears. In an open office overrun by IM, you're both exposed for everyone to see and deaf to what they say about you.
Most disturbing is that the privacy IM offers may be a total illusion. Google, as a default setting, keeps a log of every chat—and those logs, if you’re chatting with colleagues on a work account, probably belong to your employer. “The general rule most courts have followed is if it’s employer-owned, you don’t have any expectation of privacy,” says Matthew T. Bodie, a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. That means your boss could probably look at your chat transcripts and punish you if she found something she did not like. (When she calls you into her office, make sure you close the door.)
The Supreme Court had a chance to lay down some precedent in the case City of Onatrio, California v. Quon, where a police officer was fired for sending personal (and sexually explicit) text messages from a work pager, but it ducked the issue, “Rapid changes in the dynamics of communication and information transmission are evident not just in the technology itself but in what society accepts as proper behavior,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote. “At present, it is uncertain how workplace norms, and the law’s treatment of them, will evolve.” But what would Justice Kennedy, with his roomy office and lifetime appointment, know about “workplace norms”? For most of us, the demand is simple: If you can't give us walls, at least give us privacy on our computers.
Ben Crair is a story editor at The New Republic. Follow him @bencrair.