Open Plan offices not good for you. Now they tell us?

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I was involved in office landscaping in the early 1970s, moving hundreds of staff into a new civic building.

It was thought that it would give us more flexibility and improve communications between teams. There were still private offices for senior staff and meeting rooms but for 80% of staff they were in the open plan areas.

The irregular arrangement of desks separated by screens and potted plants was quite a contrast from the old offices in the Town Hall. There we still had a bell-call system for when you were summoned to see “Sir”. But this was a new start.

I didn’t realise at the time that the idea of office landscaping or bürolandshaft had been developed in the late 1950s, partly as a reaction to scientific management, and by the time we were adopting it it was almost over in Germany where it started.

And over the next couple of years there same thing happened in this project. More and more screens appeared and it became like a series of cubicles. People created signals  such as flags to say “do not disturb me” and the noise was a problem at times.

To make it worse the council had not installed the air conditioning system as a cost-saving initiative and the windows weren’t designed to be opened so in Summer everyone sweltered and tomato plants proliferated.

One of the purported advantages was that people would communicate more easily.  But with the advent of personal computing people were more likely to text each other or send an e-mail than actually walk across the room to have a conversation.

Now researchers at Karlstad University in Sweden have found that workers who share offices have lower job satisfaction.

They looked at ease of interaction among employees and their general well-being and thought that in open-plan offices of between 3 and 20 people workers reported lower levels on both these factors.

The open plan office may have short-term financial benefits but these may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being. 

Decision-maker should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility and productivity” said Tobias Otterbring the lead author of the study.

Open plan offices have become significantly more common in the past decade in place of cubicles say the authors (ideas just keep recycling don’t they).However the study supports other research that shows that they interfere with an employees’ ability to concentrate on their work.

It’s been suggested that employees can lose almost a third of their productive time because of interruptions and distractions at work. To get round this some employees started work earlier or worked later to complete tasks without interruptions.

Another expert suggest that we are interrupted every three minutes in such an environment and that it takes up to twenty minutes for us to refocus.

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