Ironically, open-plan offices were innovated by German designers in the 1950s as an attempt to break down barriers and help bring people together. Unfortunately, sociopathic business leaders quickly realized that this well-intentioned office plan could be used for packing as many workers into a space as possible, therefore bringing down costs. As the 20th century progressed, open-plan offices became the standard in workplace design, and while costs were saved initially, far more problems were created in the long-term. Today, open-plan offices are the source of mental anguish, paranoia and poor health for millions of employees around the world.
Susan Cain, in her brilliant book, Quiet, states that over 70 percent of today’s employees work in an open-plan. She goes on to say that the amount of space per employee has shrunk from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010. While dehumanizing a workforce and removing their privacy makes sense from an economic perspective (initially), it is thoroughly atrocious in terms of productivity, and more importantly, morality. Here are some of the main reasons why open-plan offices should be avoided.
Studies show that between ⅓ to ½ of all humans are introverts. For workers in fields such as software engineering and graphic design, this figure is likely to be much higher. Being an introvert doesn’t mean that you are shy or dislike people, it simply means that you recharge your batteries while alone, thrive in solitude and become drained after prolonged periods of socialization.
Since introverts can quickly become overwhelmed in overstimulating environments, an introvert employee’s productivity takes a nosedive when they’re forced to in an open-plan office where random sights, sounds and disturbances are commonplace. Therefore, if you value your workers (or at least value their productive output), it would be wise to have them work in environments where they are comfortable and can concentrate. For introverts, working in an open-plan office for 8+ hours a day is draining, unproductive and unpleasant.
Important tasks require the complete focus of a person’s mental resources for a prolonged period of time. This is impossible if you’re also concerned about other people looking at you or your computer screen. The mere act of being observed makes people less relaxed, and thus less productive. Additionally, being in an open-plan office removes walls between you and anyone that chooses to engage you in time-wasting, inane banter. For companies that employ extroverted team players rather than quiet introverts, inane banter can be a severe problem when coupled with an open-plan office.
Business leaders with a manipulative agenda may argue that an open-plan offices encourages communication, but being constantly open to communication with nowhere to retreat does nothing but create paranoia and destroy productivity.
The ideal temperature, lighting and noise levels for a working environment are highly subjective. An extroverted HR professional may enjoy a jovial well-lit atmosphere, whereas an introverted software engineer may prefer to work in silence and pitch black darkness. The more people with different personality types you have working in one uniform environment, the more difficult it is for everyone to feel comfortable and motivated. If the majority of your workforce are working in environments which are hostile mismatches for their personality, productivity will drop.
In addition to promoting mental disorders, open-plan offices promote physical disorders too. A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found that workers who inhabited offices of 6 or more people took 62% more sick leave than those in private offices. While open-plan offices make it easier for germs to spread, the increased stress caused by working in open-plan offices may hinder worker’s immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness.
While some working environments require face-to-face communication from team members, if this is not a necessity, it’s infinitely productive to work digitally without a physical office space. Email communications result in a concrete trail of messages that can be referred to at a later date, leaving less room for ambiguity or circular discussions. If you absolutely must have a physical office, private working areas are essential in order for workers to feel comfortable and concentrate effectively.
While there can be short-term financial merits to enslaving and commodifying your workforce like animals on a factory farm, this is ultimately unintelligent if your company’s revenue depends on the creative and intellectual output that your workers have to offer. A workplace that allows for collaboration to occur without disturbing the solitude of workers is ideal. However, if you are in business primarily to feel important rather than produce great work for your clients, open-plan offices might be an acceptable choice.