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Wednesday, 07 July 2021 17:09

Yes, open-plan offices do suck Featured

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The quiet open-plan area at Slack's Melbourne office, taken at the opening in 2016 The quiet open-plan area at Slack's Melbourne office, taken at the opening in 2016

It's not just you. Open-plan offices are measurably bad for you.

I've never been a fan of open-plan offices. The background noises and constant toing-and-froing are very distracting.

And far from encouraging collaboration, the widespread use of headphones to block out those sounds leads people to withdraw from each other.

I've often suspected that open-plan offices really are mostly about packing people into a smaller space (real estate is expensive), plus a little bit of the Panopticon approach to supervision (as if technology doesn't already provide enough opportunities for that).

New research from Bond Business School at Bond University shows that it's not just a question of the type of working environment you prefer: the noise in open-plan offices increases stress and worsens mood.

The study was performed under experimentally controlled conditions, and it found that just eight minutes of simulated open-plan office noise was enough to heighten negative mood by 25%.

Furthermore, it increased stress (as measured by heart rate and sweat response) by 34%.

Not good.

Several years ago, I visited Microsoft's main campus outside Seattle, and was shown one of the buildings that housed some of the company's developers. It consisted of many small (but not cramped) one-person offices, much like those I'd worked in at universities here and in the UK.

I was told that this arrangement was driven by Bill Gates, who understood the need for quiet when you're trying to concentrate.

Organisations follow all sorts of fads promulgated by celebrity executives, but it's a shame they can't get the basics right. If your employees need to concentrate, don't put them in an open-plan office where they are constantly disturbed by everyone else's noise.

In the short term, at least take a leaf out of Slack's book, and make the open-plan area a quiet space.

Read Libby Sander's article about the research at The Conversation.


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Stephen Withers

Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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