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Should we ban open-plan offices?

Lydia Smith
Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
Open-plan offices have downsides too. Photo: Getty

At some point, many of us will have worked in an open-plan office – designed to encourage us to collaborate with co-workers and share ideas.

But we all know the reality of doing away with walls. It’s hard to concentrate when your colleague is eating a sandwich with his mouth open and your boss is marching around behind you.

And as you try to focus on the task at hand, all you can hear is other people’s phone calls and the person sneezing next to you – which you hope isn’t a cold you’ll end up with too.

According to research by Savills, UK workers are more likely to be in open plan offices than any other European countries. A separate study found 80% of US workplaces are open plan. From Apple to Facebook, many of the global tech giants are in favour of open layouts for employees, with the latter’s Menlo Park campus allegedly the largest open-plan office in the world.

It’s clear they are popular among employers, but not so much among workers. In fact, a 2009 study in Sweden found that workers in private offices were most happy with their environment, while most dissatisfaction was registered in medium and large open-plan offices. So why do so many of us hate them so much?

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Open work environments have been hailed as a boost to performance, but anyone who has spent any time in an open-plan office will know it can be hard to concentrate in one.

In short, there’s such a thing as too much communication. The point of open-plan offices was to make it easier to talk to colleagues and although we can hold impromptu meetings, our close proximity to our co-workers often means sitting in on personal conversations and other distractions which reduces productivity.

In the modern workplace, we’re far less likely to communicate face-to-face, instead relying on platforms like Slack. Last year, researchers at Harvard Business School found open-plan offices reduce the amount of time people spend talking face-to-face and instead drives them to interact by text or email. If you’ve ever tried to have a tricky conversation with a colleague in a space where others are all ears, you may have chosen to message over Slack rather than walk over to their desk.

“Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the researchers concluded.

These types of offices can also lead to stress. One of the key factors is you don’t get any privacy in an open-plan office – and it can be impossible to escape a terrible manager, making the working day more anxiety-inducing.

Research by Cornell University has not only linked open-plan workplaces to added worry, but found workers are less likely to make ergonomic, postural adjustments to their work stations - leaving them at risk of musculoskeletal disorders.

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Many find open-plan workplaces uncomfortable for a number of other reasons too. Visual overload - the sight of other people’s books, papers, trainers, coats, bags and general personal items – can be distracting. Not to mention the air con wars. According to one survey, 42% of office workers have fallen out with a colleague over air conditioning and the resultant temperature of the office.

Finally, a lack of personal space can also make the spread communicable diseases far easier. The typical office desk is filthy, playing host to more than 10 million bacteria – which is 400 times more germs than found on a toilet seat. And no matter how clean you keep your own desk, it’s hard to escape grime when you’re in an open-plan space.

On average, a sneeze or cough can send around 100,000 contagious germs into the air at up to 100 miles per hour, according to researchers at the University of Bristol. And with presenteeism – people coming into work when they are ill – having more than tripled since 2010, open-plan offices only increase our chances of catching our co-worker’s bug. Maybe it’s time to start working from home.