The Business Of Business: The trouble with open office spaces

Open office spaces are an introvert’s nightmare. Background noise interferes with concentration, constant interruptions from coworkers disrupt workflow, and the knowledge of being surrounded by watchful eyes impedes reflection. After only a few minutes at the office, introverts risk feeling over-stimulated. The lack of physical barriers between workspaces is intrusive to them rather than liberating. It’s safe to say that an introvert didn’t invent the concept of the open office.

Open office spaces don’t only hamper introverts’ productivity; they can have negative effects on the job performance of extraverts as well. Work is primarily an introverted activity, composed of tasks which need to be performed independently. Conducting research or writing up a report, for example, are inward-focused tasks; they require concentration and reflection. Extraverts often have to tap into their introverted side to accomplish necessary work assignments. It is difficult to do so, however, when faced with the temptation of social interaction that open office spaces afford.

The open office plan has come under scrutiny of late. Employees have reported dissatisfaction with open offices, citing a lack of privacy and control over social interactions, noise distractions, and unwanted interruptions as negative factors. Research has shown that employees working in open-plan offices take more sick days than employees working in traditional cellular offices, experience greater cognitive overload and over-stimulation, and demonstrate decreased task performance.

Furthermore, the promise of increased creativity driving the adoption of the open office has proven to be somewhat of a false prophet; employees are either too distracted or too overwhelmed to devote energy to innovation.

This isn’t to say that open office spaces aren’t worthwhile investments. There are contexts in which an open office space can be beneficial or even necessary to improved job performance. Tasks that require unobstructed communication between team members are more easily accomplished in an open space, one reason why companies should consider reserving such a space for extraverted tasks. An open office space becomes problematic when it makes up the entire office. The key is to provide employees with a private space in which they can work on introverted tasks. A company boasting both open and closed sections of office space offers its employees the best of both worlds, a practice which brings out the best in its employees.

Bianca Lallitto has a Master's degree in Psychology with a certificate in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. She has a penchant for behavioural analysis, and enjoys exploring the possible causes of people’s actions. Her analyses frequently extend to the world of fiction; her thoughts on the behaviour of fictional characters can be found on her blog, Fiction Digest.

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