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The science of why you hate your open office

And one reason why it might actually be good for you.

The science of why you hate your open office
[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

The backlash against the dreaded open office plan has been brewing for many years. Not without good reason: Many employees struggle to focus amid the endless distractions and noise that are inevitable when you put everyone in a giant room together, and people feel constantly watched without any private space to retreat to. One survey found that 70% of workers report feeling distracted when they’re working. It’s bad for employers too, because employees tend to be less productive with so many distractions pulling their attention away from their work. Researchers have found that it can take more than 25 minutes for someone to return to work when they’ve been interrupted, and that interruptions of only 2.8 seconds long can double the amount of errors people make.

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The evidence for the perils of open offices isn’t just anecdotal; there is a host of research backing it, too. Here’s what science has to say about how open plan offices impair the way we work today–and the one way they improve our lives.

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

Open plans reduce face time between coworkers and decrease productivity

One of the biggest myths of the open office is that it encourages collaboration between coworkers, who–lacking walls–will spontaneously bump into each other and have conversations that will lead to the next brilliant idea.

But a landmark Harvard Business School study from 2018 found that open plan offices encouraged less face-to-face collaboration–employees spent 73% less time interacting with each other in-person. Instead, out of a desire to not distract or disturb their colleagues, people just sent more emails and instant messages. The study found that email use increased by 67%.

It’s something many of us open office denizens intuitively know: Why would you interrupt someone who’s intently working with a question or a spontaneous observation when you can just email her–especially if she has her headphones in, a now universal sign that people don’t want to be disturbed?

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

Open plan offices are just too damn loud

There’s another reason for those noise-canceling headphones. The biggest distraction in the open office is noise. In 2014, furniture maker Steelcase surveyed 10,000 workers and found that people lost up to 86 minutes per day because of noise. Another survey from 2013 found that almost half of the surveyed employees had a problem with acoustic distractions–in particular, overhearing conversations, which was the biggest frustration for many people.

That’s a real problem for workers’ productivity and creativity. A 2018 study by WeTransfer, which asked creatives about their most important requirements to do good work, found that 65% of creative people want silence. It was the most crucial element of their work process, far more than a neat, tidy space, coffee, or sunshine.

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[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

The lack of privacy has a disproportionate impact on women

One much-derided feature of the open plan is that there’s no privacy. It always feels as if someone is looking over your shoulder, and there’s no place to escape when you need to hop on a phone call or even just take a quiet moment alone. This can be frustrating for all employees, but one study found that the lack of privacy and the pervasive feeling of being watched has a disproportionate impact on female employees.

The study tracked a government office’s switch from a traditional, cubicle plan to an open plan. Originally, it wasn’t even focused on gender until the study author, who embedded in the office for long periods of time, noticed that she started feeling pressure to dress differently. She interviewed other women in the office, and found that some women were avoiding entire sections of the office to avoid their staring colleagues, and others had completely changed the way they dressed because they felt like they were on display all the time.

Fast Company readers also shared their stories of how male colleagues would inappropriately stare at them–a problem exacerbated by a lack of walls in open offices–and how they often would escape the office just to find moments of privacy. One woman who wrote to us said that her open office plan left her without a place to hide when a coworker was sexually harassing her.

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

Open plans make you get sick more

Research has indicated that open offices don’t just impact people’s productivity and feelings of safety when they’re in the office. They can also exacerbate the spread of germs, increasing the frequency by which employees get sick–another drain on overall productivity. A 2014 study analyzed sick leave rates in 1,852 Swedish companies, some of which were open plan, and found that there was “significant excess risk” of employees taking sick leave in open plan offices.

The researchers hypothesized that the increased amount of sick leave that employees took might be due to germs spreading more easily around the office, general anxiety from open-office working conditions, or office norms about whether people should stay home when they’re sick. Whatever the root cause, the open plan didn’t come out looking good.

[Source Image: tarras79/iStock]

One positive: Open offices force you to move more and might even be less stressful

Research doesn’t have only terrible things to say about open offices. A 2018 study in the British medical journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that people working in open plans tended to move around more and were less stressed than people working in private offices or cubicles. The study used stress and activity wearables to measure 231 employees over the course of several days, with surprising results: Employees in open plans got 40% more physical activity and had 9% less stress inside the office and 14% less stress outside the office compared to people in private offices and cubicles.

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Of course, that may be due to the study’s findings that open offices force people to walk around more–taking a walk is a great way to destress during the day. Ultimately, the study paints a more complex picture of the open plan. While it might be be the worst kind of working environment for some people, like introverts, extroverts may find it less stressful. Either way, given that open offices are much cheaper for employers to build and operate, there’s no doubt that open plan offices are here to stay.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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