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It's official.

The commonly touted and implemented open office concept harms employee productivity and satisfaction.

What was previously thought of as a breakthrough in office dynamics, where employees are free to mingle, communicate in an inclusive environment and engage in free-form idea brewing has mutated into the chief cause of employee dissatisfaction and stress.

What happened?

Prior to World War 2, offices in the USA and other parts of the world were little more than people farms where everyone were like robots confined to a particular seat in a row to ‘make up the numbers' in a static, militaristic environment.

After the war, when relations with Germany were on the mend, its more innovative office layout began to break into the USA and other nations.

However, the the spirit and purpose of the original design that was carefully researched and implemented by German firm, Quickborner, was downplayed while the happenstance of an inherent lower cost of having a homogeneous environment became the prime motivation for adopting this concept.

The original idea included island clusters where teams would work side by side without partitions. Potted plants were to be placed throughout the office space to create a contrast while instilling some life to an otherwise stagnant environment.

Private areas were also available for any person that would require peace and quiet while the communal areas were meant to encourage free-flowing discussions.

Bosses also would no longer sit in big shiny offices as a sign of their station and instead share space with their teams.

This would - in the long run - help bosses manage more effectively while breaking down the old sentiment of a boss being unapproachable.

Movement around the office, too, was encouraged. Although you had your own desk, you weren't bound to it. The company would create enclaves for an individual to retreat to if necessary. This would establish a truly dynamic environment where teams or individuals could relocate around their work space just to keep things fresh. Psychologically, having this option would assert a sense of control over one's place in the office which is crucial to the work happiness of said individual.

However, much of the Quickborner concept began to disappear in the mass market implementation. Global offices paid more attention to the low cost than the benefit to employee psyche. Perhaps much was lost in translation; after all, Quickborner could not possibly oversee millions of offices to ensure that everyone abide by the principles they set.

The problem thus, was how easy it was to assume that a blanket implementation of the concept is sufficient. Most of the careful research Quickborner poured time and resources into were discarded, ignored or implemented incorrectly. The concept was approached completely wrong.

The office space began to turn into a cacophony of noise and disturbance which individual employees lack any control over.

This certainly goes against inciting the spirit of collaboration it was designed for!

Unsurprisingly, problems both physical and psychological arose.

Now, statistically, this would not have been so serious an issue if not for the fact that over 70% of offices worldwide employ this over-hyped concept.

But what is the problem here? Shouldn't a social and open concept office be good for employees?

Yes, but like all things, too much of a good thing becomes a bad thing and the irony behind the open and ‘dynamic' office environment is that it becomes stagnant; stuck in the perception of what that concept should be for years on end with little significant change.

Still, the popular consensus is that the an open office can make employees feel like they're part of a laid back and creative company and is more of an expected norm these days. 

Obviously, this has been adopted by tech companies like Google and Facebook and has shown that it is effective when done right.

There is a big difference.

Those companies promote a full package environment meant to spur creativity through providing employees private spaces to retreat to during work hours if they need.

They have the option to move around and are not forced to sit at their desks, unable to affect the environment around them.

Other companies however, take a blanket approach and afford the barest minimal without understanding the ramifications of their cost saving initiative.

Many researchers and psychologists have studied the effects an open concept office has on workers and have summarily discovered that this seemingly innocent idea damages creative thinking, attention span, work satisfaction while simultaneously driving up the number of sick leaves taken by 62%.

This number was brought to light by the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health and the National Research Centre Working Environment in Copenhagen, Denmark. After extensive research and surveying, they found that;

"Sickness absence was significantly related to having a greater number of occupants in the office (P<0.001) when adjusting for confounders. Compared to cellular offices, occupants in 2-person offices had 50% more days of sickness absence [rate ratio (RR) 1.50, 95% confidence interval (95% CI) 1.13-1.98], occupants in 3-6-person offices had 36% more days of sickness absence (RR 1.36, 95% CI 1.08-1.73), and occupants in open-plan offices (>6 persons) had 62% more days of sickness absence (RR 1.62, 95% CI 1.30-2.02)."

62% is far from being an arbitrary number. Given the fact that the office layout and disruption is the primary cause for this really puts a lot of things in perspective.

Just imagine working in an environment where every phone call you make can be heard by people no matter how softly you try to speak. There is incessant typing and talking going on near you and when you're trying to focus, you're vulnerable to the random disturbances because since it's an open office, impromptu discussions are encouraged despite them being a nuisance.

You have no control over your environment and the only way to drown out the noise is to detach yourself from it. This exacerbates the problem because when you lose that link between where you are and what you do, the stress that comes with the reality of work takes a toll on your psyche.

Furthermore, noise has been closely linked to reduced cognitive performance as the human brain can only process so much when it is constantly being overloaded by sounds it can't turn off.

Psychologist Nick Perham who studies how sound affects how we think found that office noise greatly weakens our ability to remember and recall information or even do basic calculations.

This is notable since many people tend to plug their earphones in as they work to drown out excess noise.

Unfortunately this tactic does not help at all as noise, whether controlled or uncontrolled, will still reduce the sharpness of thought.

Adding fuel to fire, psychologists Gary Evans and Dana Johnson from the Cornell University discovered that open office noise increases the body's generation of epinephrine - commonly known as adrenaline. This hormone is associated with our fight or flight response which intrinsically links to the rise in sick leaves taken and sadly, resignation. 

The real horror here is that as bad as these are to experience, involuntarily you contribute to the system and the impact it would have on your colleagues as well. It becomes a vicious cycle that no one is any wiser about.

Therein lies the delicious irony; that the workers who suffer psychologically and even physically do not know that the culprit is their office environment. This advertently leads to frustration.

No doubt pertinent issues such as stress and unfair wages are factors to be considered but sometimes a more benign and adaptive environment would go a long way in belaying many of those grievances.

One Workplace Design consultant, John Ferrigan - who had worked with Silicon Valley companies including Google - said it best when he declared that, "There need to be spaces for those people who really need quiet to focus, whether they just find it easier to work or they're more of an introvert. We need to provide spaces where everyone in the company, regardless of personality or role, will feel comfortable."

 After all, the people in the company will always be more dynamic than the most dynamic of spaces.

All is not lost though. There is a way to resolve this spiralling issue and fortunately, it is as simple as "creating different settings or zones, because it's never one-size-fits-all".

Written by: Christopher Chitty

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