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Open plan offices are basically terrible in every way

There’s a growing consensus in the scientific literature that open plan offices damage the mental and physical health of employees, destroy their morale and generally make their work lives less pleasant. Let us first look at some studies.

Evans and Johnson, 2000:

Forty female clerical workers were randomly assigned to a control condition or to 3-hr exposure to low-intensity noise designed to simulate typical open-office noise levels. The simulated open-office noise elevated workers’ urinary epinephrine levels, but not their norepinephrine or cortisol levels, and it produced behavioral aftereffects (fewer attempts at unsolvable puzzles) indicative of motivational deficits. Participants were also less likely to make ergonomic, postural adjustments in their computer work station while working under noisy, relative to quiet, conditions.

Epinephrine is another word for adrenaline, which plays a role in the body’s “fight or flight” response. So, open plan makes you feel like you are being preyed upon by someone trying to kill you, and it makes you less motivated to work on hard problems, and it makes you less likely to adjust your work station posture, meaning you are more likely to get a nasty physical problem like RSI. That sounds great. Just the sort of place you can relax and focus on solving hard problems, as knowledge workers are asked to do every day.

What about the noise in our offices? Professor Adrian Davis from University College London told The Guardian last year:

The noise in open-plan corporate offices and call centres, for instance, may not damage hearing but can cause raised blood pressure, sleep and mood disturbance and other long-term health problems.

Of course, to avoid the distraction caused by noise in the modern open plan office, people turn to playing music to drown out the noise. Which itself can cause hearing issues.

I currently have some temporary hearing loss, not caused by loud music but by a minor physical condition that I am awaiting surgery for, so I’m very interested in work environments and hearing loss at the moment.

The British deafness/hearing loss charity Action on Hearing Loss estimate that 1 in 5 people currently suffer from some form of hearing loss. In a recent report, ACH estimate that £24.8 billion is lost from the British economy due to people not able to work as a result of deafness/hearing loss. Under British law, specifically under the Equality Act 2010, employers must make reasonable adjustments for staff with disabilties including deafness/hearing loss.

Open plan offices present special issues for those with hearing difficulties, whether temporary (like mine) or permanent. A person who has damaged their hearing in one ear are often less able to parse spoken language in noisy rooms—impaired speech discrimination (the ability to discriminate between the speech one ought to be focussing on from the background noise, sometimes called the “cocktail party effect”).

Guess what—there’s a paper on this too: Suter, 1979:

Theoretically, open‐plan offices are designed so that their occupants may study without being distracted, as well as converse with each other and on the telephone. Design criteria using masking noise are based on assumptions that talkers, listeners, and listening conditions are “average.” These assumptions are reviewed, especially as they affect hearing impaired people. There is evidence that noise levels of 47–50 dBA can degrade communication of the hearing impaired without affecting those who hear normally. A study of speech discrimination in noise showed that even people with mild hearing losses had considerably more difficulty understanding speech than their normal‐hearing counterparts.

So even if the added noise that an open plan office is designed to have doesn’t affect those with normal hearing, it can make it much harder for those who have hearing difficulties to hear. The increased use of breakout areas, informal meetings in cafeterias and so on (which are often caused by the fact that there either aren’t enough meeting rooms, or because booking time in meeting rooms requires an overly bureaucratic process or requires managerial approval) don’t help here either. The technology industry’s increased use of “agile” standup meetings and scrums means more noise and more problems for the hearing impaired.

And the damage done on hearing impaired people isn’t simply audiological, it can also mean more stress and fatigue. So sayeth Jachncke and Hallin, 2012, in a study comparing two small groups of hearing impaired and normal hearing people working in open plan offices:

In each experimental session they worked for two hours with basic memory and attention tasks. We also measured physiological stress indicators (cortisol and catecholamines) and self-reports of mood and fatigue. The hearing impaired participants were more affected by high noise than the normal hearing participants, as shown by impaired performance for tasks that involve recall of semantic information. The hearing impaired participants were also more fatigued by high noise exposure than participants with normal hearing, and they tended to have higher stress hormone levels during the high noise compared to the low noise condition.

People with hearing impairments struggle more to understand what’s being said in an open plan office, and the general noise makes them worse at their job. Oh well. They are only a fifth of the British population.

If an accessibility issue were affecting a fifth of a company’s customer or user base, that would be a pretty reasonable thing to invest in, as web accessibility advocates frequently argue. It seems curious that such little attention is paid to improving the environment that people find themselves working in every day given the disproportionate effect that it has both on the well-being of people with a disability, and on the negative outcomes for their productivity.

Even if you don’t care about people with hearing loss (again, 20% of the population and growing), let me just give the most pragmatic, hard-nosed business reason why you should care.

Pejtersen et al., 2011:

Occupants sharing an office and occupants in open-plan offices (>6 occupants) had significantly more days of sickness absence than occupants in cellular offices.

They just don’t bloody work. They make people without hearing loss or disability spend more time off work sick.

Let’s recap then. Open plan offices make things worse for employees. Those employees take more time off work sick, are less able to focus at work, escape from the agony of the chatterbox by playing loud music on headphones so as to filter out the noise. They are more stressed, more likely to develop a whole variety of physical health problems, and less motivated at work. And it has a disproportionate effect on people with hearing disabilities, which could potentially lead to legal liability under the Equality Act. None of this seems good for employers or workers.

If there were a chemical substance that caused the same health outcomes as an open plan office, it would be restricted as a potential public health hazard. Copycat management and cost-cutting has led to the creation of these toxic workplaces. The same people who will understand that knowledge workers need to be “in the zone” to get productive, creative work done put them in environments least conducive to that happening. We have articles giving tips on how to survive an open plan office, as if it were a bad case of the flu or a screaming child on an aeroplane. The truth is far worse: open plan is very likely to be the rest of your working life.

Is there an alternative? Well, we could have old-style offices. Some people would object, but peace and quiet and privacy sounds like it would be absolutely amazing. We could have a mass transition to remote working, which means people wouldn’t have to commute either and could live wherever they felt like. Almost anything would be better than open plan at this point. Whatever the future is, we can’t carry on with open plan for much longer. It is a profoundly broken model.

Jean-Paul Sartre is often quoted as saying “hell is other people”.1 Open plan offices have been an extremely successful attempt to prove such sentiment right.

  1. He kinda didn’t say that though, like with so many quotations.