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Workplace Woes: The ‘Open’ Office Is a Hotbed of Stress

Lack of privacy is the least of it. Research shows that open-plan offices sap motivation and create "cognitive load"

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Ringing phones. Pinging e-mail. Co-workers’ ringing phones and pinging e-mail. How is anyone supposed to get work done in this place?

The modern open office was designed for team building and camaraderie but is mostly distinguished by its high noise levels, lack of privacy and surfeit of both digital and human distractions. And indeed, several decades of research have confirmed that open-plan offices are generally associated with greater employee stress, poorer co-worker relations and reduced satisfaction with the physical environment. But there are some ways to combat those detrimental effects and still be productive.

(MORE: Paul: Can You Learn Everything ‘on the Job’?)

The noise of the open office is one of employees’ chief complaints about it, and research shows that the ceaseless hubbub can actually undermine our motivation. In a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, 40 female clerical workers were subjected to three hours of “low-intensity noise” designed to simulate the sounds heard in a typical open office. A control group experienced three hours of blessed quiet. Afterward, both groups were given puzzles to solve; unbeknownst to them, the puzzles had no solution. The participants who’d been treated to a quiet work setting kept plugging away at the puzzles, while the subjects who’d endured the noisy conditions gave up after fewer attempts.

Look around any open-plan office today (especially one full of younger employees) and you’ll see that many workers deal with this problem by wearing ear buds or headphones. Although it might seem that importing one’s own noise wouldn’t be much of a solution — and although we don’t yet have research evidence on the use of private music in the office — experts say that this approach could be effective on at least one dimension. Part of the reason office noise reduces our motivation is that it’s a factor out of our control, so the act of asserting control over our aural environment may lead us to try harder at our jobs.

(MORE: Workplace Bullying: The Problem — and the Costs — Are Worse than We Thought)

Another frequent complaint is the lack of privacy in an open office. In part, this is deliberate: designers and managers believed that once the walls came down, workers would be more likely to have the kind of casual or chance conversations that can inspire new ideas. This utopian plan may have backfired, however: research shows that while conversations are indeed frequent among employees in open offices, they tend to be short and superficial — precisely because there are so many other ears around to listen. To avoid self-consciousness and self-censoring, find private spaces to talk to your colleagues: go on a walk around the block or a trip to the coffee shop, or slip into an empty conference room.

The original promoters of open-plan offices also hoped that the setting would make co-workers available to help one another. That’s great for the help seeker; not so great for the help giver who has her own work to do. In a study released last month by a group of German and Swiss researchers, participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task. They recommend that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed. In order to minimize cognitive load, this period should last for a while — on the order of several hours. And if your co-workers still insist on calling to you across the cubicles, put in your ear buds and tune them out.

MORE: Paul: Lessons from the Lab: How to Make Group Projects Successful

79 comments
Acoustic123
Acoustic123

Proximity with colleagues and a lot of distractions sound greatly affects the concentration and productivity. There are ways to implement to ensure acceptable speech privacy and enhance comfort in open-plan offices (see article in the National Research Centre of Canada). One of these ways is the sound masking (see system Soft dB for example). It has become essential in many cases to find a suitable and conducive to concentration acoustic comfort.

Anthony Gérard, Acoustic Doctor

joelc
joelc

Open work spaces are a terrible idea except in certain environments. If the environment involves people who constantly need to exchange ideas and information, perhaps there is some merit to it. If the environment involves people who need to concentrate on critical problems, such as programmers, this is an absolutely abysmal idea. I did some contract work for an insurance company that used this floor plan for contractors. It immediately told me that the company does not care about its contractors. If the idea was so great then its full time staff would be in an open plan. It makes apparent the hierarchy in the company, sort of a caste society. My workspace was a folding table in the walkway of the office. Enough tables were set up for about 6 contractors. The noise and interruptions were constant. People would walk by and occasionally stop and chat about lunch or their plans for that night. I got to the point where I dreaded coming to work in the morning. The work was stressful enough with never ending emails and calls inquiring about critical problems that needed to be fixed.

I will not consider working with this company again.

heartprivacy
heartprivacy

Give me a break - these workplaces where never designed with "team building" in mind. They were designed to save the company money by eliminating offices. Period. 

WorkingManNJ
WorkingManNJ

One size fits all mentality. Sefishness... it fits me just fine. 

Fear... I'm the boss I know best... about everything. 

Bigotry... I like it, and you don't so I don't like you and you are abnormal.

sla724
sla724

This is to broad. Certain jobs and certain companies have great success with open offices. It's not all "constant chatter" and if it is - bring headphones.

cupcake
cupcake

We moved to open space a year ago.  I listen to constant chatter.  I listen to speaker phones echo ing when my boss calls someone on our team.  The whole conversation.  I listen to other managers speaker phone.  We have a co-worker that is constantly jumping up like a gopher and complaining about chatter.

It's so non work productive.

onon
onon

open plan office worse idea ever... Only thing I can do is listen to loud music.  Anger anger... people near me tapping at desk constantly, dropping pens, talking, chronic coughing... cannot focus at all.  Why management aren't smart enough to know and fix these problems.

whatthewhat
whatthewhat

I have worked in an open office (just a large room, not even an office exactly) for over 5 years now with a handful of people, and I can tell you from expert experience that it is the worst idea ever thought of for business.  I literally get nothing done all day, I have to stay after hours or come in hours before everyone to actually get work done.  I can't focus, I can't hear anything, NOTHING is private (that includes pretty confidential financial information), everyone hears everyone all day long, and no one really can get along anymore.  It is stressful.  Some of us use headphones, but that doesn't really block out interruptions or when you need to have private conversations with the boss about your work.  Because everyone can hear everything, private things are known and it is used against others.  It is not as easy as just getting up from your desk and going outside, not when confidential work has to be done at a desk.  There has been nothing positive about this experience, and it continues to get worse.  The environment has turned friends into enemies, since everyone has an opinion on everything and offers it without regard for anything because there is no privacy.  I cannot wait to finally quit this toxic atmosphere that (YES!) is mostly due to the open office environment.

m83
m83

AMEN! this spells out my experience - and i felt crazy, eventually leaving the job for another opportunity. Thank you for this validation!!

MelindaAddie
MelindaAddie

You all should form a community of people who feel very strongly that your rights to peace and quiet are being denied at work. Because every man and woman and child's life work should be within reach. If noise is a problem, let's not close our ears.

val_du_bois_vert
val_du_bois_vert

My company moved to an open space place for more than a year now. I can tell from my own experience my productivity dropped dramatically. I wouldn't mind to hear my own team, but I hear the entire company. Listening to music alleviate somehow the problem but it does NOT solve it entirely. I am a software engineer and I need to focus on my work. Increasing stress does not help me to give more to the company nor being more successful individual. 

BVinLA
BVinLA

I think this is why offices or at least high walled cubes work better. You can hear the mumble of people talking around you but its not loud enough to disturb or clear enough to get sucked into knowing about every project but your own or to hear sensitive things you shouldn't.  But yet the murmer of talking around you is enough to let you know its ok to drop by other peoples office to discuss ideas or vice versa.

In an open area you just simply get disturbed or sucked into every conversation which either ends up in a silent office which feels uncomfortable, or a noisy one which is unproductive.

BVinLA
BVinLA

A team office or "war room" for 3 to 7 individuals working close nit on a software project can have some advantages.  But generally only in the Agile world where teams are self selecting, meaning people work in with those they compliment well with.  Under such conditions meetings can be held in area, whiteboards and other information displays can be shared, interruptions are at least driven towards the same goals.  Productivity can increase.

Putting your team(s) adjacent in  a big desk farm of all employees does little but increase agitation and profits for headphone companies.

BVinLA
BVinLA

Since the start of my career offices have disappeared for all but executives, cubical walls have shrunk and then disappeared, and noise has become a constant issue.   The cubical farm poked fun of in the 90's movie "Office Space" is a luxury environment compared to most offices now.  

With more and more studies like this out its clear our loss of the walls of serenity is more about padding some operations executive or facility managers bonus rather than to provide a more functional work environment. 

Scotty_A
Scotty_A

Most corporations suck and don't care about their employees when it comes down to it. It is why many employees last less than six years at a given company.

Raggedhand
Raggedhand

And that's why so many productive workers get so much done at home. A highly productive worker who is constantly disturbed by advice-seekers will do better as a telecommuter.

afmajret
afmajret

from a software development perspective,  there isn't one right answer to this question. collaborative tasks (system design, system architecture, requirements determination, etc.) demand a shared, open working space, while heads-down, solitary tasks like coding and debugging demands a quiet, insular space where one can focus. I've used both to good advantage, but the bottom line is that self-directed, fully-engaged teams are what makes the difference, not the work space layout.

Benson Stein
Benson Stein

   I wear full "studio style" headphones at work to help drown out the noise. Virtually everyone in the office thinks I'm listening to music, but no, I just use them to reduce background noise.   Also, I notice people bother me less when I wear them, as they assume I am listening to music or other audio.

Carlos Pereyra
Carlos Pereyra

Bull. The open office was created so managers could more easily keep an eye on the workers.

Douglas4517
Douglas4517

Every few years someone recycles an old concept of how to run a business and we turn everything upside down to go along with it. Centralization to de-centralization and back again. Open office to separate offices or pseudo-offices (cubicles) and back again. Top down management to customer driven to employee empowerment and so on.

In my 34 years in a large communications company, I saw it all... a number of times.

Micarl
Micarl

If it were cheaper for corporations to provide individual space, they would do it in a heartbeat with a PR statement how THAT was better for employees. It is 100% about money and the rest is bs.

SmilingSmartBlonde
SmilingSmartBlonde

There is no need for any studies on this matter. Open office floorplans are evil. Partitions are only marginally better.  Watch the comedy movie "Office Space"  which has had an almost cult-like following, and you'll know that the suffering of workers forced to listen to other workers saying tacky annoying things, including even the presumeably innocent chirpy receptionists who aim to please incoming callers with melodic voices.  There is merit to having spontaneous meeting areas (ex: coffee area, fountain with benches in lobby), but no merit in the open architectured offices. None whatsoever.

Talendria
Talendria

At the risk of being mocked, I think we need to incorporate more feng shui principles in office design.  My husband's open office environment is cold, dim, and (to me) depressing.  If you're going to spend half your waking hours in one room, it should make you feel energized and confident.  I personally would incorporate warm colors and whimsical features that make employees smile.  I'd also use plants and an air purifier to improve the indoor air quality because breathing that stale air makes you feel like you're on an airplane.  Finally I'd use the fabric paneled cubicles that reach chest height, so they dampen the noise and offer some measure of privacy.  Nothing says, "I don't trust you," like giving your employees zero privacy.

Barbara Postid
Barbara Postid

To me, Hell would consist of an open office environment.

Joshua Johnson
Joshua Johnson

While various members of our team work remotely, when we are in the office we work at one large conference table.  Usually it just takes a pair of headphones to check out and get into the zone.  Otherwise, we are all there and able to share ideas across departments.  For our team, this works really well.

When private conversations are required, we just use a small corner office or, if weather permits, simply for on a walk.

ghuppert
ghuppert

I have never like the open office concept.  It is loud.  There is ZERO privacy and the space is too small to really work.  Plus, and this may be a little selfish, but so be it, it used to be a bit of a status symbol to get an office.  I meant something.  Now if you need to have a sensative or descrete conversation you have to move to a private conference room and close the door, that raises even more eyebrows.

Christiane
Christiane

I too worked in a newsroom for years and in that context, the open office works well, because everyone is concentrating on one product – the day's paper – with the same deadline. When I heard the chatter of the police scanners, it mattered to me because I knew there was significant stuff coming out of it. I now work in an open office where I am still editing and writing, but am now seated to one of the busiest sales people for the conference division. He's ALWAYS on the phone, always on about pavilion dimensions, floorplans, and electric access for a trade show. It's nonstop, I can't concentrate, and the only time when I feel productive is when I am transcribing interviews. We were stuck in here as a cost-saving measure, and all of the writers are getting stressed and frazzled.

mandycat
mandycat

My last job as a database administrator, a type of work requiring extreme concentration and attention to detail, was set in Cubicle Land.  I was surrounded by (1) a team of younger employees who thought it perfectly acceptable to carry on conversations with coworkers three cubes away, with plenty of jokes and HA HA HA; (2) a second group of people who had a conference call every morning in which they all participated via their speaker phones; it was like sitting in a giant echo chamber.

This wasn't collaboration, just noise and bad manners.  

Choking Kojak
Choking Kojak

Hotbed of stress? 

More like a hotbed of shoulder-surfers waiting to overhear some insider-information :P

kumaran
kumaran

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Sara Rose
Sara Rose

My favorite style of office has a covered garage, refrigerator access and a master bedroom down the hall. It's called home and I wouldn't give it up for any sort of corporate perk.

orlandojon
orlandojon

The cubicle isn't any better than the "room full of desks". The real thing this shows  is the lack of concern for employees below managment level. Corporations just don't want to spend the money on making sure they are comfortable and so they get the low level of productivity they deserve

rdfInOP
rdfInOP

I've worked in three different environments:

1.  Very, very quiet cubes.  It was fine but the sound suppression was so good that visitors spoke in hushed voices.

2.  Somewhat noisy cubes.  I liked this the best.  There was a connection to the group that was lost when we moved to offices.

3.  Office.  It's seductive and I wouldn't have given it up but I missed

the cubes.  The company had to take steps to get us out of our holes. 

We had foosball, ping-pong and other activities.

I liked the noisy cubes the best and missed them when we moved to office. 

fcckingmedia
fcckingmedia

A quiet office is so weird and awkward.  It reminds me of those people you bump into in the break room who can barley whisper a hello.  Louder offices obviously facilitate communication.  To me, that is a much more preferable work environment.  To be able to talk with and personally know your colleagues is invaluable.  But I see the other side.  There are always a few people who aren't naturally outgoing and social.  When you force them to be in that kind of environment they get stressed.  Likewise, put me in a room full of people who don't talk with each other and I'll rip my eyes I out.  My point is, all us social/load people are sympathetic to other's wishes to work in an area that more isolated; everyone has their own way of doing their best work. But keep in mind, if your the quiet person--we're all laughing at how weird and awkward you are....

FSDH
FSDH

I agree with this article 100%.  It makes me want to cry.  My workspace is constantly invaded by a neighbor with boorish behavior.  I don't know why the company doesn't want people to be able to concentrate on their work, but that's the message they send by not allowing any breathing room. 

Additionally, I have read that colds and other illnesses spread more in open plan offices.  Nice work, company.

John_Schubert
John_Schubert

The original open office was the newsroom.  I worked in several over the decades, and really enjoyed them in the context of newspaper reporting.  There's a lot of hurried collaboration when you're on deadline, and the proximity shaves precious seconds off of many interactions.  The editor can glance around the room and instantly know what's going on, and a reporter who needs help can wave his hands and instantly get bailed out by someone with 10 minutes to spare.  You knew who was on the phone, who was busy writing, and who was dashing out to cover a story.

  It never occurred to me to wish I had more privacy.  The isolation would just slow me down.  Somehow, social interaction and chitchat all fit in quite well.  And when you focused on your work, all the other sounds in the room just fell into the background, like so much white noise.

  Which isn't to say this is right for every person or every kind of work.  But I loved it.

heartprivacy
heartprivacy

@sla724 Can you give me an example of this? I've never known a single person who worked in an open office and didn't hate it. 

HaWie
HaWie

Working for a big multi-national that moved to open office 6 years ago I have exactly the same experience . It has reduced my output considerably and this has certainly not improved over the years. On the contrary, and it worries me more and more to the point that I think that I should start a discussion withour our company to address this subject. It is almost impossible to get anything done. I realise it is different for some, but for me the effect of the noise and the visual distractions in this environment is like someone is tapping me on the shoulder continuously. Cannot help it, no matter how quiet my colleagues try to be, I see and hear everything. Is my employer depriving me from a stress-free working environment? My noise-cancelling earphones help, but when I use them people walk to me and actually tap me on the shoulder to get my attention. If I would quit my job, open office would be one of the main reasons, that is how stongly I feel about it.

William R. Mosby
William R. Mosby

I did something similar about 30 years ago, but added white noise. This was in an office environment with cubicles that resembled offices because they were so tall, but management went and spoiled everything by piping in actual Muzak meant to be used in elevators and grocery stores. Then 10 years after that I went to work at another place that did, and still does, supply private offices for most everybody at their workplace. Huge improvement. Now I'm retired and have total control. Heavenly.

William R. Mosby
William R. Mosby

And Dilbert chronicled it. I sometimes wish I had thought of writing that strip.

Benson Stein
Benson Stein

  I agree. I'm an Engineer and I'm supposed to be debugging computer software and coding new programs, troubleshooting technical issues of various sorts, and maintaining the corporate network.  Often the office gets so insane and chaotic that I just tune everything out and instead of working I read online news,  Youtube, blogs, tech sites, etc..   I make up my work up by staying late, since most workers evacuate the premises by 5:30pm or so. 

Benson Stein
Benson Stein

I agree. I'm an Engineer and I'm supposed to be debugging computer software and coding new programs, troubleshooting technical issues of various sorts, and maintaining the corporate network.  Often the office gets so insane and chaotic that I just tune everything out and instead of working I read online news, Youtube, blogs, tech sites, etc..   I make up my work up by staying late, since most workers evacuate the premises by 5:30pm or so.

  I find that what takes me three hours to complete during the day, I can complete in one hour, when not being distracted or interrupted every five minutes.

Benson Stein
Benson Stein

YouTube and blogs are a great way to kill time.

William R. Mosby
William R. Mosby

I remember seeing pictures of WW II design offices that were a sea of desks in all directions. However, everyone was working more or less silently at their drawing boards and there were no radios or even telephones in evidence. I think that might work better than today's open environments.

Reythia
Reythia

Oh yes it is.  For those of us who are easily distracted, having even a partial wall on either side of you helps keep you focused.

Ferdy Christant
Ferdy Christant

Indeed louder offices facilitate communication. And that exactly is part of the problem: sometimes you do not need or want this communication, you just want to produce something, and that is hard in an open office. A lot of the communication that it supposedly facilitates may be unwanted or distracting, depending on the type of job.

I also don't think it has anything to do with being social or outgoing. Being social doesn't mean talking a lot. It would be more social to shut up and let people work in many cases.

I think what helps in open settings is to at least group people by project or some other trait they have in common. This way most of the communication at least is somewhat relevant.

Rich Harris
Rich Harris

You should also consider the different types of work people do. Some work is more collaborative and other work requires individual thinking and problem solving. I work in an open office and it's almost impossible to complete a thought. I get so disgusted with it some days. It really is torture.