Ever since Google created the world’s coolest office (we’re still campaigning for a slide in ours), companies worldwide have been trying to make workspaces more relaxed and, dare we say, trendy. Open-plan offices have now become the start-up identifier - think hipsters hanging out in all-glass offices that have more beanbags than people. Now, the trend has moved into the mainstream.
With one big room, long desks and a sense of community (though we still don’t know the name of the guy two rows behind us), open-plan offices aim to banish the isolation that private offices forced upon employees, in the hopes of promoting productivity, face-to-face interactions and inspiring new ideas and collaborations. But research has shown they may be doing just the opposite.
A noisy work environment causes distractions and interrupts focus, forcing some to wear headphones to block out their neighbour’s conversations, which hardly helps communication. These distractions also damage productivity – nothing kills your train of thought like your neighbour noisily booking her next mani-pedi. The lack of privacy that comes with a public workspace means more emails shared (even with your desk-mate) to avoid eavesdroppers, creating a more digital environment, rather than one that promotes physical interactions - which was the aim in the first place. In fact, studies have shown there to be 73 per cent less face-to-face interactions than in private work environments, while email use rose by 67 per cent.
Interestingly, movement in open-plan offices is higher than in others, probably because employees are looking for private spaces to talk. The natural human desire for privacy means that when we don’t have it, we’ll find a way to create it – whether it be through emails, texts, or sneaking off to catch up with a work-mate.
Open offices also mean a higher health risk because of the shared space and shared temperature controls (we’ve got several blanket-sized scarves by our desk at all times). Plus shared air, which even sounds gross, promotes the spread of germs - those in open-plan offices took 62 per cent more sick days than those working in private. They even reported feeling as though their general health had deteriorated, and reported worse wellness overall. We’ll be replacing our desk decorations with hand sanitizer.
Open-plan offices may not be all bad though – they can make management levels seem more approachable, though only for casual conversations. Predictably, people don’t like asking their boss for extra time off within ear-shot of their colleagues.
So, what's the solution? According to a UCLS study, it could be to have multiple spaces for specific needs. A shared space, where that loud lady from finance can talk openly about her night out, a quieter-but-still-communal desk space and private spaces for when you just need a minute to yourself.
Google may be open plan, and might be setting the standard for offices worldwide, but they have private places including sleep pods (which we couldn’t be more jealous of) and alternative communal spaces to encourage interactions, should people feel as though they don’t want to chat in public. And as an added bonus, a change of scenery can be beneficial for creativity.
So, as it turns out, designing an office just because it looks cool may not be the best way forward. Who’d have thought? Feel free to forward this to your boss.
Photos: Unsplash and Instagram