Open Plan Offices Should Be Banned Immediately
Please, just let me work in peace.
Photo: Arcaid Images / Alamy Stock Photo
I am writing this in an open plan office. Right now, I can hear the fleshy pads of Joel Golby's massive fingers tapping away at his keyboard. Teaspoons clink against ceramic. Ergonomic office chairs creak like frogs in a bog. Somewhere, a woman sneezes so unfathomably loudly it makes me jump. There is one man who won't stop whistling, as if he knows his rendition of "Mas Que Nada" will one day give me that stress-induced heart attack, and he desperately wants to finish the job.
I have noise-cancelling headphones on, but I can still hear it all. Worse yet, music plays on the overheads – "Fast Car" for, inexplicably, the third time today – despite the fact everyone is wearing headphones to escape the noise and to distract themselves from the discordant violence of the open plan office.
According to a recent study, 80 percent of American workplaces are open plan. The Guardian report that the UK has twice as many open plan offices as the global average. WeWork – which continues its mission to fill every vacant office building going with succulents and midcentury furniture – is a resolutely open plan kind of company, subscribing to the idea that these offices improve productivity and increase collaboration.
But they don't, do they? In fact, attempting to work in one is more like trying to watch a TV show you've been desperate to watch, while your sibling sits a foot away from you, repeatedly punching themselves in the face. You don't want to look, but you kind of have no choice.
As this VICE article from last month illustrated, there is conclusive evidence that working in one is distracting, uncomfortable, increases stress (studies on stress in open plan offices have pointed to anxious workers' posture suffering, potentially leading them to develop musculoskeletal disorders) and spreads germs, resulting in more sick days taken.
Unsurprisingly, then, they are completely at odds with increased productivity. A study by Harvard researchers proved as much, but anecdotally, you'll know as well as I do that open plan offices stifle rather than encourage productivity. I'm not even an introvert – and introverts do not thrive in open plan offices – but I am sensitive to stimuli, and the layers of sound, the constant movement and the undulating and consistently wrong air-con temperature do more to distract me than focus my attention on the work I'm supposed to be doing. On days I'm anxious, it's hopeless.
The way many of us work has changed drastically in the past decade – laptop-led, portfolio-driven, freelance contracts, remote working – and yet here we are, still tapping alongside one another like we're packing biscuits. Boomers created the open plan office, presumably as a reaction to the cubicle offices that came before them. What they didn't predict when trying to open up employees' horizons was how newer developments would do that in a much more intrusive way: it's almost impossible to sink into meditative concentration when you have people coming at you via GChat, Slack, email, WhatsApp, Messenger and whatever other tech your company uses to make your life a living hell.
The idea of open plan offices inspiring collaboration is a cute and idealistic one. In Deep Work, author Professor Cal Newport quotes Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey as saying, "We encourage people to stay out in the open because we believe in serendipity – and people walking by each other teaching new things." In all the open plan offices I've worked, I've never witnessed one person approach another at their desk to teach them a new thing. Further evidence: those same Harvard researchers found that rather than "prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture [appears] to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM".
Similarly, data from a researcher at Auckland University of Technology, drawn from 1,000 respondents, suggests that those in open plan offices have worse quality co-worker friendships than those in private or shared offices, and even than workers who spent most of their time working remotely.
Which is completely unsurprising, because in practice these spaces rarely provide possibility for boundaries, control, respect. Often, there are many departments in the same room, some requiring peace and focus, others space to schmooze clients on the phone. You'll end up resenting Dan from sales for constantly screaming about "circling back on that email" directly behind your head, even though it's basically what he's employed to do.
At any rate, these offices are not what we want. According to a recent study by Oxford Economics, what millennials want most is "less noise in the workplace" and "the ability to focus and work without interruptions". But we're stuck with these offices for now: most companies are unlikely to let you work remotely, even if you could perfectly well, and the only proposed update is some stupid idea that's basically an open plan office without desks. Perhaps, though, it will provide some comfort to know that you're not the only person who finds it difficult to work in this environment.
What I'm saying is: lock me in an empty white cell underground. Feed me coffee and snacks through a hole and see me thrive. I'm lusting after the cubicle era. Give me an enclosed white cell and the autonomy to personalise it. Give me that rat farm. Trap me in. Or maybe just let me decide on the best space to complete the work I am doing that day and trust me to do it there.
Right now, I'm lying on the floor by a fire exit. This tiny corner of the office was the only sanctuary I could find. So if you thought this article was disjointed and the product of an obviously distracted mind, don't blame me; blame whoever built this office.