How open offices are killing us

When I walked into my office for the first time, I was impressed by the open layout. It just screamed “cool tech company,” and I was itching to be a part of it. Three years later, that tune has changed dramatically — I’m ready to go full pirate and commandeer the nearest office. That or just burn the building down.

Our open office layout has absolutely crippled my productivity. I can’t hear myself think, I’m starting to feel bitter toward my coworkers, and my anxiety has shot through the roof. If I was the only one with a problem, I’d shrug it off as another quirk. But here’s the thing, I’m not the only one — experts have come forward with tons of research showing how terrible open offices are.

For instance:

In 1997, a Canadian company asked a group of psychologists from the University of Calgary to monitor employees as they shifted from a traditional office layout to an open one. The psychologists assessed the employees before the transition, four weeks after the transition, and, finally, six months afterward, measuring their satisfaction with their surroundings, as well as their stress level, job performance, and interpersonal relationships. The results were less than positive; the employees suffered pursuant to every benchmark: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome. Instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity plummeted.

Let’s take a closer look at how open offices are destroying both workers and companies.

They’re Physically Harmful

Open offices are a virus wonderland. A study of Danish workers found that the more people working in a single room, the more sick days they took. Compared to regular offices, employees working in an open office plan had 62% more days of absence due to illness. And compared to working from home? Well, a survey from Canada Life found those who worked in open plan offices took 70% more sick days than those who worked from home.

A study from the University of Arizona found that when a sick employee comes into work, about half of the commonly touched surfaces (desktops, doorknobs, tabletops, etc.) are infected with the virus by midday. It’s almost impossible to avoid germs and regular illnesses when everyone is confined to the same space. Not only is this incredibly aggravating to employees, it’s also harmful to the company’s bottom line when large numbers of workers call out sick at the same time.

They’re Mentally Detrimental

An extensive study from Ipsos and Steelcase found that a whopping 85% of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and can’t concentrate. Why are so many people unhappy with open offices?

Noise

One of the leading complaints about open offices is the noise, and research shows that the constant pandemonium can actually sabotage motivation. A study from the Journal of Applied Psychology subjected 40 workers to three hours of “low-intensity noise” designed to simulate the sounds of an open office. Meanwhile, a control group experienced three hours of quiet. After the three hour period had ended, the groups were given puzzles to solve — puzzles that had no solution. The workers who’d been treated to a quiet setting continued to hammer away at the puzzles, while the subjects who’d experienced noisy work conditions gave up after fewer attempts.

Interruptions

Interruptions from colleagues can be insanely distracting. DEGW surveyed thirty-eight thousand workers and found that interruptions by colleagues had a negative effect on productivity. What’s more, higher seniority employees fared worse. But why?

A study by German and Swiss researchers found workers who requested help with a task performed better, while those who provided guidance did worse. Because the helpers were frequently alternating between assisting others and doing their own job, they were forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the specifics of their own project.

Environmental Control

In an open office, environmental control is absolute hell. It’s impossible to get a large number of people to agree on ideal conditions, and someone is always going to be uncomfortable. For employees, being able to adjust the lights and temperature to their comfort is incredibly important. The more control people have over their environment, the more productive and satisfied they are.

Lack of Privacy

Employees in an open floor plan have little to no privacy, and it’s often cited as a source of distraction. Lack of privacy adversely affects engagement, performance, and job satisfaction. A 2013 study reported many workers in open offices were frustrated by distractions and the poor work performance that resulted. Almost half of the surveyed employees said the lack of sound privacy was a serious problem, and more than 30% objected to the lack of visual privacy.

They’re Emotionally Damaging

Lack of privacy isn’t just irritating, it can cause real problems. The same study that tested the effect of office noise on motivation also found that the group exposed to the noise had higher levels of epinephrine in their urine.

Epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) is involved in the body’s “fight or flight” response. Essentially, workers in open offices are under a constant barrage of adrenaline, their bodies telling them to fight or flee. For those who suffer from anxiety disorders, high levels of epinephrine causes increased discomfort, worry, and distress. Over a period of time, the constant high dose of epinephrine leads to a phase of exhaustion where the body starts to experience the more harmful effects of anxiety.

And for introverted and highly sensitive people (HSPs), open offices are pure torture. 50.7% of the population is introverted. That means half of the workforce is slaving away in environments that are emotionally cancerous for them. These people need quiet and calm to do their best work. They are incredibly uneasy when being closely observed, become easily distracted if they are uncomfortable at work.

Lynn Stuart Parramore explains, “Feeling helpless to change their office environment, HSPs with jangled nerves may find themselves heading to the psychiatrist’s office, seeking to alter their internal state, which, in the case of an innate trait that is likely genetically coded, can be a fool’s errand. Muscles tense and head pounding from over-arousal, some HSPs may reach for something — anything — that seems soothing, like a cocktail or prescription pain medication.”

What You Can Do

Talk to upper management, talk to HR, talk to your fellow employees — talk to anyone who will listen. Discuss the pitfalls of an open office plan, your personal issues with it, and share data regarding the negative effects. Propose solutions, such as remote work. Explain the benefits of such a plan. For instance:

However, no matter how enticing theses statistics make look, don’t hold your breath. Many employers are caught up in the incorrect notion that open offices incite creativity and teamwork, and shaking them of it may be an impossible task. Perhaps they might feel that the real-estate savings that accompany open offices make up for the lost productivity. Or, worst of all, they might not give a damn how you feel.

Personally, I’ve taken a number of approaches toward getting out of the open office trap. First, I’ve discussed it at length with my manager and together we’re shaping conversations to have with upper management about the need for more remote work options.

Second, when I became completely overwhelmed by the chaos of my office and my anxiety disorder caused me to shut down, I got a note from my doctor requesting I be allowed to work from home for a few months. Once the note was in the hands of my company’s HR department, I was able to work remotely and get some much needed peace.

Third, my therapist is helping me proactively manage my mental health while working in an open office. My hope is that this will aid in negating some of the stress I feel while at work.

If your company won’t move away from the open office structure, feel free to try one of these approaches. Most importantly, don’t let an open office destroy your life. Adopt as many coping mechanisms as you need, make the most out of your downtime, and live the richest life possible outside of the office.

 

Liz Greene is a writer, marketing professional, and history geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her on Twitter @LizVGreene or catch her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.

1 Comment

  1. operationshafer on

    Hummm…sure “open space” does not equate to automatic collaboration; however, I think more opportunity exists by creating the “space” to exchange ideas and discuss / brainstorm with the pursuit of excellence and efficient/effective benefits as the winning journey…I think the true hindrance and at the same time cornerstone for success is Visionary Leadership and an organizational culture of trust and empowered employees that understand the business goals, core competencies, and bottomline outputs/returns. Simply put “openness” can be the door to profits and is a definite piece to the “profits puzzle” and should not be dismissed because openness as the single ticket to profits does not reach that end point. Finally, there is a greater continuum of the pursuit of your business model deliverables that should define success.