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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.

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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.

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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.

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