Working in an open plan office is not a productive use of anyone’s time. I know this is a very strong statement to start a conversation, but I am speaking from experience. Every time the doorbell goes, we all look up like meerkats from our desks to see if there is someone available to get the door, sometimes three of us get up at once. Once the visitors are in the building, they often wander round the office saying hi to all the people they know, and stop for a chat. This is great if it was maybe just every now and then, but the traffic through our office is second to none. Not only are the visitors disruptive, but the staff as well, because of the open plan, people often stop by your desk for a chat, regardless of how involved you are with what you are doing, breaking your chain of thought, and putting you back at square one.
In a recent study done by the University College London, they found that excessive noise and lack of privacy, as well as constant distraction, cause workers to suffer problems such as stress, say researchers. Perhaps even more worrying for employers is a 20 per cent drop in productivity because of the “open plan office”
The noise level in our office is particularly high with four large printers placed within a small radius of any of the desks, as well as ALL the phones ringing when the main number goes. My desk in particular is one of the worst, I am right in the way of all passing traffic as well as four feet away from the biggest printer/copier machine adding to the constant flow of people to collect printouts or copy papers. I often get more “quiet time” with my blackberry on the busy London tube than I do sitting at my desk. On days when I am allowed to work from home, my productivity shoots up, as I am able to sit quietly and concentrate on finishing projects.
Surely it is just common sense that if you cram people into a tiny, overcrowded little space the chances of them having any level of concentration is little to none. The air con blows all day, circulating everyone’s germs, most times if one worker gets a cold, the whole office goes down as a result. Most of the staff are afraid to take time off for sick leave, as this is frowned upon, so the germs continue to circulate. That is a whole separate issue though. Another worrying statement that came out of the research was that current building practices risk cramming staff in like 'battery hens' can cause the staff members to become paranoid, say researchers from University College London and environment consultants BRE.
The concept of the “open plan office” was a way to improve communication between office workers, increase efficiency and camaraderie. The real reason was to reduce lighting, heating and air conditioning costs in new buildings, it is cheaper to maintain and more staff are housed. But there is a greater cost, and this is to the productivity of the staff, which cannot be measured. As in the words of Stephen Harrison, of Steve’s blog - “If you have 2 loud chatty people and they chat for about an hour over the course of a day and this disrupts just 6 other people close by guess what: that's a full day's worth of 1 persons work LOST, you've managed to employ 2 people but only get the benefit of one, and with it irritate the other 6, and guess who's likely to leave first the chatty ones or the ones trying to work and getting irritated by the others? Guess who feels punished? Not the people chatting!”
Unfortunately, most companies would balk at the idea of providing individual offices for their staff. The people who set the budgets may be intelligent, but they often have a hard time seeing past the immediate costs compared with the loss of revenue in terms of staff productivity, when it comes to intangible savings such as these. They just see the initial outlay of £n0000 and shriek, "we can't afford that!". Companies are too budget strapped to put up a few partitions and rent a bit more floor space.
The extraordinary thing, however, is that workers have been complaining for twenty years about the open office but nothing has been done and no one has paid attention. This particular piece of research was conducted in 2010, and as yet, I have not seen any change in the rate of open plan offices reducing. . This “open plan office” idea put simply is a miserable failure introduced by psychologists and other ergonomic engineers to destroy the working environment and workers’ productivity.
As always, comments welcome.
Till next time….