Friday 20 April 2018

Why Open-Plan Offices are bad for workers' health

Psychologists have identified noise as one of the key contributors to stress in the workplace. Stock photo.
Psychologists have identified noise as one of the key contributors to stress in the workplace. Stock photo.

Patricia Casey

If you have the chance to wander around any city in the world, particularly where building has been active and thriving, you will notice office blocks. They are new, large and have glass frontages. Inside, you will see hundreds of people beavering away at their monitors, on the telephone or just sitting at their desks having lunch. They are unlikely to be talking.

Open-plan offices are the trendy, modern spaces to work in and they are here to stay, for a number of decades anyway. The idea was developed in Hamburg in Germany in the 1950s, when it was thought that bringing people together in a single office might stimulate the flow of ideas by enabling contact between like-minded people on the office floor. However, what seemed like a good idea then has now been shown to be the opposite.

Organisational psychologists have been studying the upsides and downsides of open-plan offices and have made some very interesting findings.

People find them distracting. Sitting at the desk, typing a letter requires focus and the noise of others talking on their telephones, the clatter of fellow workers moving about, the ping from your inbox and simple snorts and coughs have been shown to be a distraction. Even blocking out these interruptions with headphones doesn't work either because music is a further distraction.

Psychologists have identified noise as one of the key contributors to stress in the workplace. Add to that the visual impact of people moving around and there is sensory overload.

One group studied the impact of changing from traditional to open-plan offices in an oil company in Calgary. A number of items were measured that included work satisfaction, interpersonal relationships and stress levels. On all measures, the change brought about a deterioration in a number of areas.

The staff felt less close to colleagues, they found the office itself disruptive and stressful. Consequently, productivity fell.

Matthew Davis, an organisational psychologist, published a review of a number of studies on the effects of such working environments in the International Review of Industrial and Organisational Psychology (volume 26, March 2011). He found that the studies showed employees were more exposed to uncontrolled interruptions and that their motivation and concentration suffered.

This is not unexpected. Humans have a need for both privacy and collegiality, but we like to have some control over each.

We need privacy to make the odd telephone call, to cry if we're upset and to throw our hands in the air when we're frustrated. We also like to get on well with our work colleagues, but we may not wish to sit near them constantly. Some feel that their privacy and security is threatened by others eavesdropping on their telephone conversations or peeking at their computers.

There is now clear evidence that as the number of people in a given office space increases, so does absenteeism. This may be because of the higher rate of infection, blood pressure increases, irritability or stress levels, all of which have been found repeatedly in open-plan as compared to traditional office working.

In the traditional office, people bring in their personal effects such as photos, ornaments, cards and so on. The personal touch is much more constrained in the modern office. Even simple environmental factors such as the temperature, the light and the noise level is beyond the control of the individual. If it's too hot, the person who prefers a cooler environment is not at liberty to adjust it.

There is also the more recent trend, as part-time work has increased, of several people using the same desk. This creates additional burdens relating to privacy. Most people keep personal items in a drawer at work - perfume, drinking mugs, a book for lunchtime reading, cigarettes. But this may become obsolete as one becomes a nomadic lodger at the desk; it is no longer 'my space'.

There are even practical consequences. If the drawer gets stuck, it may go unreported as nobody has ownership. The sharer may be a messy eater and leave crumbs lying about. All these make the working environment more cumbersome to negotiate.

The cynic might suspect that the continuing drive towards open office spaces is not so much stemming from employers' desires to stimulate collegiality and creativity in their workforce as to put as many 'bums on seats' as cheaply as possible. After all, bricks and mortar cost money.

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