The impact of open-plan offices

How do you feel about working in an open-plan office?

It’s quite likely you have experience of working in one, because apparently these days, half of offices in Europe and two-thirds in US are designed like this.

I’ve just been reading Noreena Hertz‘s excellent book ‘The Lonely Century’ and it has got me thinking about the impact that this kind of work environment has on people’s productivity, health and happiness.

Open-plan offices were first introduced in the 1960’s and were promoted as a way to create a more sociable and collaborative working environment.

The reality of working in one, however, can be very different.

The findings of a Harvard Business School study, show that open-plan offices ‘trigger a response to socially withdraw from colleagues’ as well as denting productivity.

Hertz offers an analysis of the problem:

✔ Excess noise, distraction and unwelcome interruptions causes us to want to withdraw into our ‘personal bubbles’ (here’s where we avoid eye contact, keep our heads down and grab our noise-cancelling headphones)

✔ We end up having to work harder to concentrate so struggle to complete tasks (another study showed that just one nearby conversation can reduce worker productivity by up to 66%)

✔ The lack of privacy gives a pervading feeling of insecurity that ‘discourages prolonged conversations and engenders shorter and more superficial discussions’.

✔ The office becomes a stage – and the feeling of being constantly observed encourages performative behaviour, which takes a heavy cognitive and emotional toll (you can’t just work, you have to make sure that everyone sees how productive you are being)

There are clear reasons by open-plan offices are so common. The fact that they cost as much as 50% less per employee than traditional office layouts means that they continue to be an appealing choice for companies.

However, Hertz goes on to point out (and I wholeheartedly agree with her):

‘It is not only morally objectionable to subordinate employees emotional and physical health to metrics like overhead per employee, it is also commercially short-sighted. It speaks more broadly to a myopic approach in which people are too reflexively subordinated to profit, and their emotions and health needs deemed immaterial to success, despite the fact that wellbeing and satisfaction are fundamentally linked to productivity and in turn to overall corporate performance.’