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Readers Respond: Open Offices Are Terrible For Women

“It couldn’t have happened without an open office plan.”

Readers Respond: Open Offices Are Terrible For Women
[Photo: Jadon Barnes/Unsplash]

Open plan offices enable a subtle kind of sexism. One recent study on an organization’s move from a traditional office to an open plan illuminated how the intense visibility and lack of privacy caused female employees to change the way they act at work. Even the architect, which the study kept anonymous, compared his design to a nudist beach.

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After we published a story about the study, responses poured in from readers, who have detailed the impact open plan offices have had on their work and mental health. Crucially, these responses reveal that while open plan offices might be bad for everyone’s productivity, they tend to make work more difficult for women, who are scrutinized for their appearance at a far greater extent than men. The open plan office exacerbates the power dynamics already at play in work environments, as the #MeToo movement has revealed. As one reader put it: “Regardless of the shape the walls make, women should be made to feel like they belong.”

These are their responses. They have been lightly edited for clarity.

Open Offices Can Make Sexual Harassment Worse

“Your article was the first one I’ve read about open plan offices that alluded to any sort of sexism, so I wanted to thank you for putting it out there. I worked at a tiny startup (~10 people with three women) and we utilized two floors of a brownstone as an office. The floors were essentially open space, with tiny side offices (and glass doors), that wouldn’t dilute even a whisper, so everything could be heard and seen. Aside from the bathroom door on the first floor and another bathroom door on the second floor, there was literally no privacy. I had to run to the basement to make phone calls for doctor appointments, or other personal matters in the winter. The basement was gross, and had terrible reception. In the summer I would just go outside so it was never ideal.

“I eventually discovered that not only was I being watched all the time, (at first I thought it was just my imagination) but then my boss started following me around. If I went upstairs to make a phone call to have privacy, he would go upstairs to get water, or tea, or something. Even when I would use the side rooms, he followed me ‘to grab something’ in one of these rooms, and made sure to check my screen to see what I was doing. It wasn’t long before I realized this guy was a little obsessed with me. And he appeared to be a bit obsessed with the other ladies in the office, too, so I didn’t think twice about it, but it turned out to be a long-term disaster when I didn’t respond to his advances and dreamy-eyed gazes. I had to leave in a huff, and I do not regret it. But it did take me over two years to overcome the notion that someone was watching me, checking in on me all the time, constantly judging me, and how that eventually turned into sexual harassment. It was a devastating time in my life, and it couldn’t have happened without an open office plan.” Anonymous

Office Design Is A Form Of “Ambient Sexism”

“Reading this article was both upsetting and validating. It’s upsetting to find that so many women struggle with the same daily insecurities or discomforts at work that I do, but it’s validating to see this issue being described as real, sexist, and unacceptable. I have been struggling with whether to talk with my manager about one particular male employee who stares at me seemingly without any concern for discretion. (That’s not to say that discreetly staring at women is more acceptable than obviously staring, but it would at least prevent me from wasting brain space on this person if I was unaware of it.) It’s caused me to strategize alternate routes to the restroom so I don’t have to pass his desk (which is nearly impossible to do in our open office plan), makes me self-conscious about my choice of clothing, and distracts me from what I *should* be concentrating on at work.

“I’ve started to call this type of thing passive sexism or ‘ambient sexism,’ the kind of behavior that isn’t overtly offensive in the sense that it doesn’t involve words or explicit actions, but creates a sometimes crushing environment that prevents women from feeling confident, supported, and safe. It very quickly turns a woman from a professional at work to a sex object. These are not conditions that will help a woman grow in her career. They create time-consuming and mentally and emotionally draining obstacles and barriers in day-to-day work life that men do not usually have to consider in their own careers. Furthermore, the challenges that women experience at work are somehow invisible to the same men that perpetuate them, which makes them difficult to confront. When women do challenge these issues, they are trivialized, doubted, or otherwise labeled negatively.

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“The worst part about my situation, and likely the situation of millions of other women, is that I don’t feel like I ‘deserve’ to complain about this man’s staring habit. I’m worried about being seen as a complainer or too sensitive. I work in a male-dominated digital design agency and have been preoccupied with this problem for months, but haven’t mentioned it to anyone.

“I should also mention that a woman designed our office, and I think she did a wonderful job. I don’t think this issue is a product of open office plans, I think it’s an issue of entitled, sexist men being unwilling to evaluate their own behavior and how it impacts their women colleagues, and an issue of companies not challenging this problem beyond just sticking a page in the HR manual about sexual harassment. Companies should be adopting employee training plans that are sensitive to making all people feel comfortable in the office, such as inclusion and diversity training.

“This happens everywhere–in open offices, in closed offices, on the street, in the gym, on the bus. Everywhere. Regardless of the shape the walls make, women should be made to feel like they belong.” Lauren T.

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“I do have a rather robust response to being watched, having been one of the first girls at a boys school, and then the first female on the factory floor in three organizations. But after moving to local government, I noticed several of the points raised. However, one seems left out. A lot of the women would get in early to be able to sit by the walls, not the aisles, in an open office. This let them feel slightly less exposed in situ, but of course also put the men at the end where it was easy to ‘aisle watch’! This early start, coupled with the pressure to dress well–let’s face it, dress down Friday is for men!–made them more likely to do unpaid overtime at the end of the day. Because the men were still going, work was still being discussed.” Kristin W. 

A Lack Of Privacy Makes Anxiety Worse

“I used to work at a small company (~25 people) with a cramped open floor plan. The conference rooms were fishbowl-style, with glass walls, and the bathrooms were mere feet from peoples’ desks, making it so that people on the outside could hear everything happening on the inside.

“I was one of three women at the company. I struggle with anxiety, and the cramped, nowhere-to-hide office layout made matters worse. When I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I would walk a block to a hotel around the corner and hide out in their basement bathroom until things subsided.

“It wasn’t until after a few months of working there that I mentioned this to my other female coworkers and found that they, too, had ‘hiding spots.’ One had a sibling who lived nearby and would go to his apartment, another would go to a department store a few blocks away.

“When I left the company, I made a note in my exit interview that the office setup exacerbated my anxiety and suggested that more consideration be given to employee mental health. I’m not sure if anything changed, but I do know that in my current office–still an open floor plan, but much larger–where there are places to escape to (like sofas, or a phone booth), I’m much happier.” Emily S.

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The “Covert Bullying” Of Always Being Watched

“As someone who has bounced around a lot in the last few years (from traditional cubicle layouts, to two different styles of open office layouts, with an office in between), I can tell you that I was far more productive and felt less ‘watched’ in the cubicle and office layouts.

“The open office layouts I’ve sat in have both had ‘privacy’ rooms available, though these tend to be used as one-on-one meeting places almost as frequently as they are used as rooms in which individuals can call someone or even just take a brief rest. One thing in particular that I have noticed is that I like to be able to schedule doctor’s visits (for myself and my mother, whom I care for) while viewing my work calendar so that I can try and avoid missing meetings, but there is really no way to effectively do that privately in an open office floor plan. I have to drag my laptop into the privacy room, hope that the wireless works in that room (which it only rarely does) and hope that the person I’m trying to schedule with doesn’t leave on hold forever, since you’re not supposed to use privacy rooms for more than a few minutes at a time. I work in an office with a large number of male colleagues, and while I don’t necessarily feel harassed, I do feel like I wear a uniform every day, and that I need to look a certain way even if I’m not meeting anyone on a given day.” Jean A. 

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“I’ve worked for 23 years in various places as a full-time graphic designer but also as a contract/temp placement worker. So I’ve seen a variety of setups. The self consciousness of the open plan mentioned in the study–I’ve felt it, although it seemed to fade as I developed a thick skin (blind eye) for it. However, the sensory overload that comes with open office plans got to a point where I could barely function and concentrate. I even had to quit a job once because of it. So much noise I couldn’t work, a man who liked to drum intermittently on his desk, another whistled, once I got placed within earshot of the frustrated and overwhelmed receptionist, once I got placed (for years) in front of the makeshift lunch prep area where the microwave and mini fridge were opened and shut all day long by a good 40 employees, not to mention the woman who dropped a whole bottle of perfume on herself every morning who moved to the desk beside me and when I asked the boss to be moved it was automatically refused because teams remain together. I felt terrible for speaking up, because I was made to feel like I was the only one with a ‘problem.’ Unable to adapt, work with others. Yet I’m a very friendly, cooperative person who makes compromises often.

“In all my career I saw two setups that promoted productivity, both were in having an individual office space temporarily, during construction of a new cubicle setup.” Brigitte D. 

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“Some years ago I worked in any open plan office and absolutely hated it. I have also worked in a space that was mixed in the type of space offered and meant there was opportunities for working in peace or having conversations that didn’t disturb others.

“The open plan office was in a college and not only was it very exposing as the managers were in a mezzanine level and looked down on us but the desks were butted up against each other and in rows. There was absolutely no privacy, and judgments about folks were made that amounted to a kind of covert bullying. Any absences from the room were noted and commented on. There were two small meeting rooms but they required booking. There was no room to spread documents out if you needed to and anyone could see what was on your screen. Most of us adopted a kind of blindness/deafness to our neighbors. It was also noisy at times, which impacted our concentration or ability to conduct telephone calls. I stuck it out for a year but was relieved to leave.

On one hand, open plan can mean airiness and collaboration, but conversely it can be oppressive, controlling, and implies management can’t trust their staff.” Elizabeth G. 

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“I have been working in an open office design for about two years and I can definitely relate to the feeling of being watched. It feels like I am on a 360-degree display. We recently moved to another floor that was remodeled and it is even more open than the previous space–smaller work spaces and glass fishbowl-style conference rooms. The mini conference rooms around the perimeter were all glass until facilities put up frosted window treatments to provide a little more privacy, especially when sharing presentations on large screens. We do, however, have a series of smaller rooms where you can take a personal phone call. I certainly feel like this constant feeling of being watched adds to my stress and limits my productivity. I also feel like there is an added pressure to be visible in my seat working. If you make use of your company’s flexibility policy and work remotely on occasion, it will be very visible if you do. There have been comments from leadership to be ‘more present,’ aka butts in seats.'” Maria G.

The Pressure To Keep Up Appearances

“I worked in an office like this for many years. My own office was a glass box and my desk did not have a facade–which meant, because I always wear skirts or dresses instead of pants, I had to sit with my knees together all the time to look ‘proper’ because I was visible from all angles.

“It sounds ridiculous but because everyone was always staring at me as they walked by, I felt obligated to maintain a more formal posture all the time–which, as you can imagine, was tiring and not conducive to thinking more freely.

“I did speak to my boss about the awkwardness of my revealing desk setup. I requested some strategic frosting of the glass (a few select horizontal bars) to block compromising view points, and he denied it, but then did it for his own office.

“And yes, I absolutely felt the pressure to always look polished because I was essentially on display the entire time I was working. It was exhausting and I really resented it and feel that it took time and effort away from more important work and mind space.

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“Our bathroom was also always full of women crying.”Veronica G.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.

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