Are open offices bad for us?

In a January 11 post Bryan Borzkowski writing for the BBC makes a compelling case that the open concept office is harmful to the individual and less productive for the company than its proponents have claimed. Companies are now trending back to traditional space with four walls and a door for each employee.

More than just a single story, the BBC piece calls readers to share stories with them on Facebook and makes a compelling case that “Whether it’s noisy personal phone calls or constant interruptions, most of us have been victims of the open office.”

Borzykowski begins: Four years ago, Chris Nagele did what many other technology executives have done before — he moved his team into an open concept office.

His staff had been exclusively working from home, but he wanted everyone to be together, to bond and collaborate more easily. It quickly became clear, though, that Nagele had made a huge mistake. Everyone was distracted, productivity suffered and the nine employees were unhappy, not to mention Nagele himself.

The story notes research that workers are 15% less productive, have immense trouble concentrating and are twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces. Online, the growing backlash against open offices even has a web site from 2014 onwards.

Borzykowski writes: There’s one big reason we’d all love a space with four walls and a door that shuts: focus. The truth is, we can’t multitask and small distractions can cause us to lose focus for upwards of 20 minutes.

What’s more, certain open spaces can negatively impact our memory. This is especially true for hotdesking, an extreme version of open plan working where people sit wherever they want in the work place, moving their equipment around with them.

We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings, she says.

These details — which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour [sic] change on a brochure we’re working on — can only be recalled in that setting.

For many of us, it’s the noise that disturbs us the most. Professors at the University of Sydney found that nearly 50% of people with a completely open office floorplan, and nearly 60% of people in cubicles with low walls, are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. Only 16% of people in private offices said the same.

They asked people in various office types how dissatisfied they were with their space and in 14 different respects, including temperature, air quality and sound privacy, closed fared better than open.

Click here for more from the BBC.