Open plan offices were devised by Satan after all

open plan shirkingFrom the Guardian (Oliver Burkeman’s Blog) 18/11/13:

In case you still needed persuading that open-plan offices were devised by Satan himself in one of the deepest caverns of hell, the Harvard Business Review delves into new research showing just how frustrating people find them – and just how paltry, on the other side of the scale, are the benefits they bring. [The most bothersome aspect of open plan offices appears to be] a “lack of sound privacy” – hearing other people’s conversations, and perhaps equally crucially, knowing that other people can hear yours.

We already know that open-plan offices have been associated with less persistence at challenging tasks, lower motivation, higher stress and blood pressure, and more. But Kim and Dear’s work, published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology, puts paid to any suggestion that the benefits of easy communication between workers – effortless exchange of information, useful chance conversations sparking new ideas – outweighs these irritations.

It’s difficult for me to remain restrained on this topic. I don’t just dislike large open-plan offices – I absolutely can’t stand them! Employers’ faith in the supposed benefits of them is absolutely misplaced.

It’s difficult to imagine creating a more unproductive environment. I think it’s very possible that many employers choose to operate open plan offices because of convention and nothing else. Doors are seen as crippling barriers which fatally inhibit the flow in knowledge and productivity throughout the office. Strangely, the last time I checked, doors were designed for people to walk through them.

The downsides of open plan offices far outweigh any benefits. Everyone is less productive as a result of the constant breaks in concentration via endless interruptions, inane chatter and the frankly bizarre desk habits of some of our closest and most despised colleagues. Everybody must surely see that open plan offices aren’t efficient. So why aren’t we doing something about it?

It’s not as though they can be relied on to help keep shirkers in check. Employees inclined to shirk will always find a way to do so whether it’s behind a closed door, a flimsy and futile office partition or anywhere else.

Why can’t society embrace common sense and return to more conventional offices?


  1. I am surrounded by people at work. There's the two sitting on either side of me and three people behind me. The bashing on the keyboard keys always gives away who is writing a furious email and then everyone else bashes their keyboards harder... way too noisy and distracting - even when no one is talking.

    I had my own office once and loved it. You can control your little part of the environment so much better. No need to be subject to fans/heaters if you don't want to be. You're free to start your day on your time frame and not wait for everyone else to settle down too, kick off your shoes and blitz through your work, call whoever you need to without eavesdroppers and just get on with things. And then you can leave that office and close the door behind you and deal with work the next day.

    1. I've worked in a huge open plan office, a large open plan office and a small open plan office. They're all bad - just to varying degrees.

      I've also had my 'own' office that I shared with one other person which was a vast improvement.

      You mentioned one of the benefits of a small 'closed' office that hadn't occurred to me: by having a door you can physically close, it helps to compartmentalise your mind, keeping your work life separate from your personal. That's got to be a good think for your mental well being.


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