Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The 'open plan office' nightmare

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….


The Gray Monk said...

Some ten years ago Harvard Business School did a study of office arrangements. It was found that productivity actually went down in Open Plan arrangements as opposed to small shared or single offices. Unfortunately this is not what modern managers, who often actually have no idea of what the people they manage actually do or how they do it, want. Privacy is anathema to the manager who relies on the "big brother is watching" approach to "manage." Because they can't do the job their staff are supposedly doing they are forced to micro-manage tasks, constantly demanding "updates" or "progress reports" or breathing down your neck while you discuss something with a client on the telephone.

Open Plan offices are not efficient work places, but they are ideal for a bullying environment and "cost effective" from a heating, lighting and ventilation perspective as you can use group lights, short ducts and minimal air circulation.

In my view, Open Plan Workplaces are probably responsible for the loss of commercial "edge" in the west. That and "management" by those whose only qualification to "manage" is a degree in management unsupported by any knowledge of the operations they are managing...

Anonymous said...

People keep quoting the Harvard Business Review as if it is a mathematical truth rather than just fashion and hearsay. In any event, the open plan is an abomination. It is a way to debase the workforce. The way we are using it in the UK is as a weapon, it is a tool that accountants and MBAs and such people use to push themselves above highly accomplished engineers and numerate graduates. It is used for no other reason than this one. For if we were producing complex products or important services then we would all be studying engineering and science and needing to concentrate and to learn. What you find is that those same protected professions of accountancy and law who force the open plan on people, have vast offices when it comes to their domain. All legal practices, barristers, accountancy firms have plush offices, yet when those same "professionals" (should I say parasites) take roles as "managers" in commerce and industry, they do not recognize anybody's need to work in an office and debase everyone to the open plan using whatever "justification". Then when decisions have to be made: (a) do we produce something new and sell it (producerism as Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, France, Netherlands, Scandinavia) or (b) do we outsource everything, cut costs, grow organically, debase the firm of knowledge and reward ignorant and aggressive managers until our now FTSE 250 dies a death and is simply a shell of a company running vast operations abroad, and we exit before it implodes. Well, they almost invariable chose (b). How many Googles are based in England. If anything like that should appear it will be bought outsources asset stripped and sold off almost immediately.

Anonymous said...

It is worse than this. Allow me to explain. The contractor that sells desks wants to make more money. So he or she embeds low partitions into the desks as a single unit. In that way when he sells the desks there is no way for the client to go and buy separate partitions. The companies like this because they buy all in one for a savings. The desk manufacturer can make more money. But the net result is to condemn all of the people who will work there for the next 35 years to lack of privacy and noise. This problem of open plan is particularly accentuated in the UK where one cannot now find a job with an office. We like to suffer. It is part of the British tolerance and masochism. We allow cowboy builders to build poor housing also (relative to technology in Scandinavia, Netherlands and Germany). By this lack of concern we condemn those who live in these dwellings to the design mistakes for the duration of their lives. It is a crime that ranks highly, perhaps not too far from that of murder and rape. We are impotent to resolve it for we have never had a French revolution and only recently have we been called citizens not subjects. Think about it. We are told to work to live rather than allowed to love our homes and our workplaces, rather than allowed to have our freedom to live to work. Accountants went into it for the money. For them jobs are about working to live. So how could they understand that some of us do not want to retire at 50. Some of us are actually doing interesting things! No... so they save money on the workplace. They assume we will skive off work etc. They live by the clock of Taylor, they really want us to be their inferiors, to punch time cards etc. It is ridiculous yet very real and painful.