Open-plan office: is adapting sufficient for introverts?

Over the past few decades open-plan offices have come to dominate the way we work. At least 70% of employers use them and the hope of being able to claim some private space at work now seems increasingly out of reach for many.

Given how widespread open-plan offices have become, we should probably expect there to be some pretty good reasons behind their proliferation. And yet, reams of scientific research actually associates them with a wide range of detrimental effects. These include high noise levels, interruptions which can’t be controlled, and a lack of visual and sound privacy. These are not only unpleasant to endure, particularly for introverts and highly sensitive people, they also damaging in terms of productivity, memory, creativity and stress levels. Feeling a lack of control over one’s environment produces feelings of helplessness. People report decreased motivation and satisfaction at work. There are also negative effects for physical health: open-plan workers fall ill more often and suffer from higher blood pressure than those occupying private work spaces.

In addition to all these drawbacks, research shows that open-plan offices don’t even deliver the benefits they claim to, and actually work against them to a significant degree. Proponents have argued that having multiple workers in the same room sparks greater collaboration, creativity and social harmony. Yet employees working in private offices actually report greater ease of interaction with colleagues than their open-plan counterparts. The lack of privacy in an open, busy office can act as a barrier to people developing genuine, personal and trusting relationships with one another. Furthermore, noise, distractions and interruptions have all been shown to increase social hostility and aggression due to raised cortisol levels.

Unsurprisingly, many introverts harbour a particular dislike of open-plan working. This is because they are particular sensitive to sensory stimuli of all sorts, making them more easily overwhelmed and drained from spending prolonged periods of time in overstimulating environments. I know from personal experience, and from the stories of other introverts, that spending the whole working day surrounded by people takes its toll and can leave us with little energy for attending to other tasks – especially social ones – during the evenings and weekends. And it’s not just subjective. We know that introverts work best in quiet, private environments. Research actually demonstrates that an introvert’s performance on a given task is more negatively affected by higher levels of background noise than it is for extroverts.

But it is not just the introverted or especially sensitive who are affected. The majority of people who actually work in open-plan offices report a myriad of complaints against them. It can also be argued that whether a person is happy with an open-plan arrangement is beside the point. Just because an extroverted employee may feel good in a busy office, doesn’t make it good for what they’re actually supposed to be doing there – i.e. working. We should realise it’s not at all surprising if the more extroverted amongst us are relatively happy in open plan offices – they’re surrounded by people and immersed in energising social interactions for a great part of the day. But this may not be the most conducive thing in terms of actually getting things done! We should remember that being subjected to noise, distractions and interruptions is universally detrimental, hampering everyone’s productivity and mental wellbeing to a greater or lesser extent.

Given the direness of this situation, it’s clear that something ought to be done sooner rather than later. There is a substantial amount of information out there offering advice to people, introverts especially, on how to cope with open plan offices. This advice mainly takes the form of adaptation techniques which involve individuals making small, low-level changes (many of which may go unnoticed) in an attempt to improve their situation and immediate environment. Some examples of these include wearing headphones or earplugs, taking breaks outside of the office, taking work home where you can be more productive, coming into the office at quieter times, and even erecting various contraptions to act as physical barriers.

Whilst I recognise the value of such advice for those who have to endure open-plan working, I would argue that these strategies are insufficient when it comes to considering the long-term and the bigger picture. Coping strategies are often awkward, involving a great deal of inconvenience. They may simply substitute one problem for another. Or they might just be plain unfair! There are stories of people arriving at their office one hour before everyone else – without being compensated for the extra time – just so that they can get some work done in peace and quiet. Other strategies, such as headphones or “do not disturb” signs can make people feel self-conscious or create tension in an office. Taking lunch breaks alone can be awkward if you have to regularly turn-down invitations from colleagues, whilst dipping out for a rejuvenating walk in the middle of the morning or afternoon can leave people harbouring a sense of guilt.

Most of all, though, none of these adaptive strategies do anything to address the cause of the problem and most people would say they are insufficient substitutes for real quiet and privacy. At the end of the day, life should not merely be about coping, especially when it comes to something as life-defining and time-consuming as work. So I would suggest that the discussion should not end with tips about implementing adaptive strategies. We can and should be much more ambitious than this.

Introverts adapting themselves to fit into and effectively become complicit with a one-size-fits-all status quo that benefits precisely no one doesn’t really cut it! We need to go beyond a narrow focus on individual struggles to consider the bigger picture and how we might go about enacting a radical overhaul of our work environments. This may mean radically redesigning office space, or perhaps moving back towards private offices. It may mean making shifts towards remote employment or higher levels of self-employment. Above all, it should mean working towards a society which caters to the needs of all personality types, as well as to the universal human need for quiet, private and distraction-free spaces of one’s own.

Sian AtkinsSian is a freelance writer and blogger at www.sianatkins.com, crafting content for clients on personal development, nutrition, travel and the outdoors. She also runs Introvert Ideal (www.introvertideal.com), a site dedicated to cultivating understanding, shifting attitudes and enacting change in society for the benefit of introverts and highly sensitive people. Follow her on twitter (@SianIAtkins) and if you have a writing project in need of completion be sure to get in touch.

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