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The Open Office Layout is Still Bad for Business and Workers

Two years after Maria Konnikova’s thought-provoking piece about ‘The Open-Office Trap’ , the layout space of businesses today have changed so little. After a series of backlash from the press, the open office has remained the standard face of startups, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies.

This is not surprising since the open office has proven great in reducing business cost. As before they needed a fortune to start a company from scratch, now with a limited budget they can occupy people in one area without having to spend more money on space and real estate.

The Open Office Layout is Still Bad for Business and Workers

The Problem with Open Office Designs

Recently, Facebook built the world’s largest open office. Todd Frankel described it as “the office of the future – open, fluid and informal.” Here, individual spaces were given less focus. There were no dividers, no cabinets to keep your belongings, no wall to hang family photos. People claimed that they were not tied to their desk; they had greater mobility and freedom while working.

However, study after study continues to claim that open office plans are disruptive due to lack of means to control noise and provide seclusion for mentally challenging works. Built to encourage collaboration and communication, open office hinders two of the most important factors needed to achieve productivity: privacy and focus. The following are just some of the many reasons why I hate open office layouts:

Overloaded with Distractions

Considered an introvert’s nightmare, the open office plan is overwhelming in stimuli, which makes it hard for us introverts to focus and get things done. In her post for Quiet Revolution, blogger Elan Morgan shares her experience working in an open plan environment.

“Spending eight to ten hours a day in an environment that left me exhausted and scattered began to take its toll. I coped by engaging in deep breathing sessions in back hallways and occasionally crying in a bathroom stall. My stress traveled home with me and kept me up at night. Did you know that clenching your jaw because of stress can eventually crack your molars? I found out that it can!” 

The open office plan is not only a torment for introverts, self-professed extrovert Jason Feiffer in his humorous article about open office layouts  said he too finds the open office plan bad for employee, bosses and productivity.

Not that I’m a private person. Contrary to that introverts-are-the-only-people-affected New York Times piece, I am an extrovert….  This is the problem with open-office layouts: It assumes that everyone’s time belongs to everyone else. It doesn’t. We are here to work together, sure, but most of the time, we actually work alone.”

No Real Collaboration   

An open office layout might look like it could boost coworker’s relationship and solve poor communication problems. But in reality, it doesn’t. In fact, it even creates more barriers between people. It’s far harder to get to know coworkers out in the open when every conversation can be heard by everyone. When you want to make friends with people, you take time to know how the person thinks, by getting personal which is something that cannot be done in an open office.

 A research conducted by The Harvard Business Review revealed that “open office spaces reduce privacy; they don’t foster informal exchanges and may actually inhibit them. Some studies show that employees in open places, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more superficial discussions than they otherwise would.” This strengthens the point that open office is not ideal if you want to create a work culture founded on camaraderie and authenticity.

Too Little Personal Space and Privacy

The open office symbolizes ‘openness’, but in this kind of environment, workers also struggle to maintain their personal space. Under everyone’s eyes, they need to look ‘busy’ all the time. With everyone listening, they have to ‘watch for their words.  Personal phone calls are harder to make, one on one conversations seem to dry.

This wasn’t how it was before. The management philosophy two decades ago revolved on giving people as much space so they can find flow at work.  After all, privacy in the workplace is a basic human need. No matter what the nature of your work is, we need it for one or two reasons. Privacy and solitude are known catalysts for innovation; it makes us productive and more creative during work.

We also need privacy to shun coworkers who love to interrupt, to escape from the eyes of our micromanaging bosses. We need it to create “our own space” where we can find comfort in our own company and thoughts. Employees who felt like they aren’t given enough privacy were less motivated and less satisfied with their jobs.

Infectious Diseases Spread Easily

According to a recent study published in the journal Ergonomics, workers who share open spaces are more likely to take sick leaves than those who have private / semi-private offices. Packing workers in close quarters increases the risk of spreading infection.

Researchers also suggest that exposure to a lot of “environmental stressors” including noise and distractions present around their surroundings lowered people’s immune system. Before the popularity of open offices, people had cubicles, which decreased the risk of transferring diseases from one another. They were enclosed in a protective space shielding themselves away from coworkers who may be carrying flu and other fatal air borne diseases.

Alternative Solutions

The open office plan will never work, as long as we have jobs that need focus and concentration.

An Agile Workspace

Allisone Arnone, principal workplace strategist at Blink considers an Agile Workplace as a solution to make “workplace flexible enough to comfortably accommodate the various and changing needs of the mobile knowledge worker”.  For the design to work, Arnone says companies should evaluate the different work styles of all employees. She mentioned six work-style indicators that will help establish the design of an organization’s environment:

  1. Mobility – Does your team need to change locations while working?
  2. Hierarchy – Will your company benefit if office spaces are designed based on employees rank or nature of work?
  3. Network – How often does your organization work with local and distributed teams?
  4. Social atmosphere – Do your teams need to interact all the time to get work done?
  5. Energy Level – Will your team benefit from a quiet working atmosphere or a space filled with energy and enthusiasm?
  6. Privacy: How controlling do you want your atmosphere to be?

Diversity is Key

We don’t need to scrap open office spaces – it just needs a little tweaking. According to Anjali Murray, editor of Fast Company Digital, diverse spaces are key to making an open office work both for introverts and extroverts. Since the main problem of open office is noise, interruptions and lack of privacy, it is important to give workers many options as possible.

For group projects that require constant collaboration and creativity, an open workspace is fitting. However, if the main focus of work revolves on productivity and results. A quiet space or a shared private with no more than three people might work. Based on Murray’s presented arguments, companies should scrap the pit with long rows of desks. And the communal tables where everyone can see, hear, and notice each other every time they sneeze or crack a joke. We need quiet space to focus. We need privacy to establish relationships.  Many creative companies now have devised diverse spaces that helped promote collaboration and concentration without having to go back to private offices.

A Perceived Sense of Privacy

Since most employers can’t be talked into re-introducing private offices, the next solution would be to help create a “perceived sense of privacy” for workers suffering in noisy open workspaces. By customizing individual workspaces to meet the needs of each worker, you can significantly change how your employees work – maybe even help them boost productivity and happiness. It could be given in the form of creating partitions between desks, dividers that minimize sound. These small tweaks create a sense of privacy for those who wish to work with great concentration.

Conclusion

The open office plan could work for some people, but for the rest of the human race who needs to be able to THINK to get work done, it is out of the question.

What’s your opinion about open office spaces?

Images: ”Large open plan office interior without people/Shutterstock.com

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Armela Escalona is a blogger, freelance writer, and content marketer. Her works have been published in various blogs, websites and magazines on the web. You can connect with her on Twitter https://armelaescalona.com/

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Comments
  • Great post Armela. I have to say I’d hate having to work in an open office as I think background noise can be so distracting when trying to concentrate. Thanks for sharing this post with our readers

  • Daphne Stanford

    Great article! I’ll definitely be linking to this in future articles! I couldn’t agree more. An open office plan can be exhausting for introverts and folks who have trouble concentrating with lots of distractions. Thanks for your contribution!




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