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Why Are Open-Plan Offices So Awful?

Open-Plan Office

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Every aspect of office culture seems ripe for satire, from management incompetence in Laurence Peter’s Peter Principle to… well, management incompetence in Dilbert and The Office. But, at least in the American version of the beloved TV office sitcom, one could also argue, as Keith Flamer does at Forbes, that “the open-plan design” of Dunder Mifflin “was essentially the main character—the catalyst for office chaos…. Inevitably, coworker interruptions, noisy personal calls, public dramas, and privacy intrusions dominated the hit sitcom’s work day—exaggerated scenarios of the real corporate world.”

Perhaps one of the reasons the show resonated so widely in the U.S. is that “open-plan design still represents 70% of all U.S. offices.” If you’ve paid any attention to current research, you’ll know this is a problem, and the denizens of those offices know it all too well. London based consultant Alina Manda recently summed up the issues in a Tweet:

Open-plan offices have been found to reduce productivity and impair memory. They’re associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Open-plan workers are more likely to argue more with their colleagues.

Cue Dwight Shrute.

Some of the research on the negative effects on employee health is summarized here. In short, the lower initial costs associated with open-plan offices aren’t worth the long-term tradeoffs in “decreased job satisfaction and wellbeing,” as Swedish researcher Tobias Otterbring notes in a Karlstad University study. Designers and decision-makers “should consider the impact of a given office type on employees,” says Otterbring, “rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility, and productivity.”

Speaking of productivity, Forbes reports that in open-plan offices “distractions sabotage employee focus, decreasing productivity anywhere from 15% to 28%.” It’s hard to see the upside. As Geoffrey Jones at Inc. puts it, “most people would rather work at home and or tolerate angry stares from the other patrons in a coffee shop (should one need to make a call) than try to get something done in an open-plan office.”

It’s certainly true that some people can thrive in open offices, but such designs assume that all employees respond to external noise and distractions in the same way. But as Susan Cain—TED-talker and bestselling author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talkingtells CNBC, quieter employees “react more to stimulation. If they’re out in an open floor all day long with lots of noise coming at them and interruptions… it makes it neurobiologically that much harder to get their work done.”

Cain doesn’t condemn all open designs. Office social spaces encourage interaction and can offer workspace for people who prefer more stimulation. “That’s great,” says Cain, “as long as everybody at all times has access to their own private space.” New York City software developer Joel Sapolsky agreed, in 2003, when he designed the offices for his company with some specific requirements in mind.

Number one on Sapolsky’s architectural brief: “Private offices with doors that close were absolutely required and not open to negotiation.” His rationale for this insistence was that “there’s a lot of evidence that the right kind of office space can improve programmer productivity, especially private offices.” But he also insisted on a “hang out space,” since “programmers essentially live at your office” and should feel comfortable in a home-away-from-home kind of way.

Quiet Spaces

Photo via Steelcase

In a more recent, more widely-applicable, solution, Cain and Steelcase have teamed up to create Quiet Spaces, which she calls an “antidote to the open office plan.” Forbes describes the concept as encompassing “five distinct designs, each uniquely suited for different purposes,” from deep thinking and focus to a living-room like feel for relaxed conversation. “Ranging from 64 to 100 square feet, each space features frosted glass walls and advanced technology to block out distracting sounds.”

Designed, says Cain, “with a non-corporate feel,” Quiet Spaces seems to herald a major upgrade from cubicle farms and noisy open-plan offices, perhaps just one of many salutary moves toward affordable office design that actually works.

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