About a third of us work in open offices. They’re cheaper than giving everybody their own space. Management gurus tell us they promote “collaboration,” “serendipity,” and other buzzwords.
The only problem is that open plan offices actually make people worse at their jobs. Here’s why:
The open office will make you less satisfied with your work, study finds.
Back in 2002, a study in the journal Environment and Behaviour tracked employees in a Canadian energy company as they transferred from a traditional office to the open plan. As Julie Beck reports for the Atlantic, the results were grim: people reported that they felt worse about their work environment, their co-worker relationships, their performance, and their satisfaction with work after moving into the open office.
The open office takes away your privacy.
If you don’t have what a psychologist calls “architectural privacy,” or the ability to shut your door to the office, then you won’t have “psychological privacy,” the ability to control whether you’re accessible to the group. Psychological privacy, Beck relays, leads to higher performance and satisfaction. The lack of privacy also means you’ll be treated to a constant buzz of background noise. While the bustle of a coffee shop has been found to increase creativity, Scientific American reports that background noise disrupts concentration, impairs memory, and aggravates stress-related illness like migraines or ulcers.
The open office can cheapen your conversations.
Conversations do happen more frequently in open offices. But they’re usually “short and superficial,” Time reports, “precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen.”
The open office especially aggravates introverts.
Introverts need privacy the most. Research suggests that background noise distracts them more than extroverts. Hans Eysneck, a psychologist who did formative work in the study of intelligence and personality, once remarked that solitude leads to people being more creative, since when you’re all by your lonesome, you’re “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” But where is the introvert to go in the open office? Into a nice set of headphones, for one.
The open office can make you feel exhausted.
Switching between your work and helping coworkers surrounding you — the “spontaneous collaboration” open offices were designed to foster — actually makes you worse at your job.
This is because it takes a huge amount of mental effort to switch between helping your buddy and reacquainting yourself will the complexities of the task at hand.
In effect, always being available to your colleagues means that you’re always on the verge of being distracted. As the Wall Street Journal reports, it takes 27 minutes to get back into the flow of a task once you finally get a chance to resume it.
The open office exposes you to other people’s germs.
Stockholm University researchers found that people who work in open offices were more likely to take sick leave than folks who worked in private offices, since working so close to your colleague may increase the spread of infection.
The open office tends to bake you beneath fluorescent lights.
Many open offices have a sea of desks arranged in the interior of the building, away from windows. This is terrible for many reasons: people exposed to natural light are more alert than their fluorescent-lit peers. Another study shows that people who work without windows get 47 fewer minutes of sleep a night than those who sit next to windows. The artificially lit workers also get worse sleep overall — and if you get crappy sleep all the time, you’ll get sick more often, get mad more easily, and remember less.
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