The open-plan office might just be the greatest design flaw in the modern world.
We can blame Frank Lloyd Wright, the 20th century modernist architect who liked the idea of large, spacious and open work areas. Something tells me Wright had very little experience inside an actual office. He probably worked from home.
I also wonder if Wright had ever come across an introvert.
If you asked an introvert to draw ‘hell’, it would look a lot (exactly) like an open-plan office. Our social energy is finite and we struggle with small talk. We’re sensitive to noises and sights and smells. We’re easily distracted. We thrive in solitude and over-stimulation leaves us feeling unfocused and muddled.
Working in an open-plan office is like trying to have a very important conversation while a toddler pulls at your ankle and says the word ‘juice’ on repeat. It’s like trying to fall asleep with a mosquito buzzing above your left ear. It’s like trying to read a book with the goddamn light off.
POST CONTINUES BELOW: The rules for an open-plan office, on the latest episode of Mamamia Out Loud.
I get it. The purpose of the modern office was to encourage collaboration and teamwork. Bosses wanted an egalitarian work environment to facilitate better communication with their employees, and also… maybe… to keep a closer eye on them.
Of course, there are some workers who love movement and talk, and can drain out sounds when it’s necessary to put their head down. The boss is now rarely shut away in a closed office, inaccessible to their employees. Some jobs require constant communication and collaboration, and for that the open-plan setup is ideal.
But for the introverts among us, it’s torture.
As we try to get our work done, the person opposite us makes a Skype call. The guy down the back is having an argument on the phone, while a delivery arrives at the lift. Someone is playing music, and another is having tuna for lunch. A conversation is taking place between four people at your desk, and all the while you’re trying to concentrate. It’s a perfect recipe for errors.
The day is just a constant battle against distraction.
The open desk presents as a constant invitation – there is literally nowhere to hide. You could be in the middle of the most important task of your week, and you feel that familiar tap on the shoulder – jerking you out of the zone.
A recent study found that a simple distraction can take 25 minutes to recover from. So if we're interrupted four times a day, that's more than an hour and a half of wasted productivity. With employees working longer hours than ever, you have to wonder if the open-office is partly to blame.
Corporate psychologist Stephanie Thompson says that the central complaint about open-planned space is an "inability to focus". The brain automatically hones in on the sound of speech, meaning that, "if someone is hovering near your desk in conversation, it's very distracting and hard to ignore," she said.
On top of the daily annoyances, the open office is making us sick. A 2013 study found that workers in open-plan offices had 62 per cent more sick days than people in private offices.
So, what's the solution? Here's a start:
- If it's going to be a lengthy phone call, don't take it at your desk. Sit as far away from the quiet people as possible. And try and keep your phone on silent.
If your lunch smells objectively bad, eat it elsewhere.
If someone has headphones on, unless it's urgent, don't interrupt.
If you're sick, don't come to work. Or at the very least work from home.
In the meantime, I'll be in the cupboard.
You can listen to the full episode of Mamamia Out Loud, here.