Why the Apparent Advantages of The Open-Plan Office are Devastating for Introverts

The ‘open-plan’ office, communal workspace. How does it make you feel?

It is a concept that originated in the 1950’s in Germany by a team looking to increase the flow of ideas and communication within teams and organisations.

More recent studies however are beginning to suggest that this is not quite the solution they were looking for. In fact it even perpetuates the very problem that the open-plan office purported to solve.

And these kinds of setups are detrimental for introverts and highly sensitive people. The uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation affect everyone, but have an even more significant impact on those of us who are internally orientated to the world.

In many ways the workplace is an important frontier for us to question as a part of the ‘quiet revolution’. As a place where self-confidence can be made and broken, we must address certain environments as unsuitable and even damaging to half of those people trying to work in them.

Open-Plan Offices for Introverts and Highly Sensitive People

Through Susan Cain’s research for her book, Quiet, she discovered that open plan offices are “associated with high staff turnover. They make people sick, hostile, unmotivated and insecure…”

And in my own reading I discovered that there is still a disconnect between what people believe to be the tangible benefits of an open-plan setup and what they say to me and my introversion.

It is still apparent that these arguments FOR such a setup are not supported by substantive research and actually create the very problems themselves for introverts and sensitive types.

In fact the only argument that makes logical sense comes from what could be described as the farming/factory perspective:

“an open-plan layout can benefit the business economically by reducing costs tied to construction, utilities and office equipment. For example, fewer walls mean less time and materials required to create the office space. Having a single work space also may reduce heating/cooling and electricity expenses thanks to improved flow of air and light. Businesses can save on equipment investment as well, since communal spaces promote shared use of resources, such as printers, copiers and staplers. An open-plan space also provides greater flexibility to accommodate evolving personnel needs”.

So why can the open-plan office be such a detrimental place for introverts and highly sensitive people? Over the past few weeks I have been speaking to introverts who work in open plan offices and boiled down their feedback to this list of problems they face:

1. Distractions

[Apparent Advantage] “A lack of walls or other physical barriers in open-plan office spaces makes it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis.”

We already know that multitasking is a misnomer; that what we see as handling a lot of activity at the same time is actually the process of constant switching between contexts.

Switching costs us focus. Distractions lower our ability to perform significantly. Open plan offices are by nature a breeding ground for distraction and for introverts who already get more overwhelmed by stimulating environments there are fewer places more distracting than one room full of busy people.

There is an increasing culture of ‘flagging’ in open offices, which is hugely helpful for remaining focussed. You indicate how immersed you are in your work, and how available you are to talk. With a simple traffic light system you can communicate the state of play. Luxafor have developed some innovative tools to do this. With LEDs, you can attach it to your computer via USB, or to another surface with Bluetooth, so co-workers know when you’ve ring-fenced time to chat, and time to work. This can be pre-programmed as well as used when you spontaneously hit your flow.
Learn more here.

2. Being Observed/Listened To

It’s hard enough to make a phone call without the knowledge that someone else is listening in. Let alone knowing that EVERYONE is listening.

It’s not simply the case that you need to have important and private conversations without being distracted.

It is actually the case that we are less effective at the task in hand when we are being observed or listened to doing it. In the kind of environment where this is constant it acts as a perpetual drain on our internal battery.

3. Goldfish Bowl

[Apparent Advantage] “Interactions in an open-plan office space generally are more frequent and informal than in closed environments where everyone has a separate office space.”

We all have those days when we just need to head into work, buckle down quietly and just get on with work. When we just need to ‘introvert’ for a while to re-energise.

Ironically an attempt to ‘introvert’ in an open plan office is often met with even more interaction. Co-workers sending messages or popping by your desk to see what’s wrong and ask why you’re being so quiet.

4. The Rumour Mill

If you need to have a one on one conversation with another worker or boss it becomes a big deal because you need to go elsewhere to find somewhere private. Even if you’re talking about something small, everyone can see and it will appear like a big deal.

This can be a catalyst for gossip and rumour, especially as you can’t talk openly about it afterwards without everyone hearing.

5. Advice From All Angles

[Apparent Advantage] “Colleagues can turn to each other for advice or assistance without having to knock on doors or schedule a formal meeting.”

Being able to get advice from others and talk through problems is helpful. But when everyone’s invited it can be irritating and even un-nerving (you don’t want everyone knowing what you want help with).

It doesn’t take long before a question to your neighbour has made it around the whole room and EVERYONE knows about your little medical problem, offering you unsolicited advice on what you need to do.

6. Creative Breathing Space

[Apparent Advantage] “The increased collaboration resulting from an open-plan work space can lead to business innovation and advancement”.

It is an idealistic belief that creativity comes from open working and a collaborative environment that takes the shape of an open-plan office. It makes sense in our minds because we join the dots – two minds are better than one when it comes to solving a problem.

What we don’t take into account however is the circumstances in which the one mind is most effective BEFORE it comes to the point of sharing.

For introverts we need time to think, to ruminate on ideas and concepts before we are comfortable sharing what we think about them. We are the opposite to extroverts who think by verbalising. We need that focussed time to go inwards before we are ready to share. An open-plan situation strangles this potential.

7. Fewer Personable and in Depth Relationships

[Apparent Advantage] “The constant intermingling not only generates a sense of camaraderie among personnel, it also enhances the flow of information and teamwork.”

According to Susan Cain those who work in open plan offices have “fewer personal and confidential conversations with colleagues”. 

There are fewer opportunities to get one on one, open up and actually get to know co-workers at a deeper level. It is not good for camaraderie when we all just have surface level relationships that don’t have any chance of deepening.

This can also contribute to back-biting and bitchiness, as well as a passive aggressive atmosphere and culture in office politics.

8. Air Conditioning and Music Wars

Cain also says of open offices that “they’re often subject to loud and uncontrollable noise, which raises heart rates, releases cortisol… and makes people socially distant, quick to anger, aggressive and slow to help others”.

There are certain collective stimuli in open office environments that can be a huge cause for contention. I know some places where they plumb music through the entire room and allow different people to decide what goes on. Obviously this is not going to be to everyone’s liking and can be very distracting for those who can’t concentrate when there is music playing.

Then there is the environmental comfort elements such as air conditioning/heating, lighting etc.

When people in the office are responsible for making decisions over these factors there will be a potential problem. Mixed with the social distance, quick anger, aggression, and slowness to help others things could quickly turn sour.

We need to find a better way than the open plan office. If we’re truly going to thrive as introverts in the workplace we need to question where and how we are expected to work. It’s a conversation worth having because society has many completely misguided and false assumptions about what makes for a conducive and creative workspace.

Open offices can be a complete disaster for introverts (and others!) Until we turn the tide, tools like those being developed by Luxafor can at least provide some boundaries to help us work without being disturbed from 9 until 5. Learn more about the gadgets they are building here.

Productivity tool

Over to You

Have you ever worked in an open office environment? How did/do you find it? Please leave your response in the comments below.

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