An Open Office May Be Bad For You. Here’s Why.

An Open Office May Be Bad For You Here's Why

For a mobile generation who can complete tasks at places ranging from coffee houses to the MRT (not forgetting the curious stares from your ‘kay-poh’ neighbours, of course), making them work from the high-walled cubicle in a closed-door office is tantamount to cooping them up in tiny cage.

In the “Office For The Future” challenge, 6 plain office suites were transformed and (surprise, surprise) customisable open-concept work spaces with minimal walls were the order of the day.

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It is public knowledge that the folks at Google have it awesome – even if you didn’t watch the recent American comedy ‘The Internship’, which is basically a preview of how Google fares on the kickass scale. Which, by the way, is full marks. Seriously, slides and a free-flow snack bar? It’s hard to top that!

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The rationale is straightforward – riddance of walls equals the riddance of barriers to make way for collaboration. But here’s the thing we realise – open offices have their downsides too. Here’s how they might turn out to be rather unfavourable to workers like you and me.

The Downside

Last year, Washington Post published an article entitled A Case Against The Office Cube, basically saying that workers in private offices tend to enjoy better privacy and work satisfaction. The top complaint about an open office? The lack of sound privacy.

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Well, it’s not difficult to see why, since office noise has been proven to impair task performance significantly. Also, not all of us share the same enthusiasm to hear about our easily-distracted colleague’s date night over the weekend. In times like these, suddenly we miss the cubicle walls that scream “leave me alone!” – simply by existing.

What about this whole “no walls, no barriers, more interaction” wisdom then? Surprisingly, researchers concluded that there is minimal difference in the ease of interactions. Now, that nullifies the intent behind open offices.

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No one is more qualified to use the “Been There, Done That” line than the Scandinavian Airlines, who back in 1987 designed its headquarters around a central street with cafes, shopping, sports with explicit intent to promote social interaction and creative encounters. Sounds like quite the dream? Two-thirds of  interactions continued to remain in private offices. 

A Hybrid Open Office

Is an open office always a bad idea? Well, work spaces are inhabited by people with differing needs and preferences. ‘One size fits all’ is an illusion, and it is imperative to strike a balance. Here is what we propose for companies to leverage on both the merits of an open office and manage its privacy-related notoriety: go hybrid.

Our take on this whole open office deal resonates with that of Office Space, who categorized an office’s workers into the Silent Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X and then Y.

While Baby Boomers may value having their own spaces, Millenials prefer working in more open environments. When it comes to making the office comfortable for Silent Generation workers, consider their needs and what you can do to make the office the most comfortable for them.

New Yorker also highlighted that multitasking millennials are more open to distractions than others, and that people who screen out distractions easily are best suited to open office spaces. If that is the case, why not created a mixed office space that has both shared spaces for those who manage distraction well, and private workstations for those who prefer to work quietly.

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Another group of people most likely to suffer in an open office are introverted individuals. In countering that, we can take a leaf out of Steelcase’s collaboration with Susan Cain’s book, Quiet, when it comes to designing quiet spaces that work for people of a more reserved nature.

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The most ideal solution is a hybrid work space with installments that fit a variety of needs and preferences. While the latter is more than often fixed, we can always count on design to be live, dynamic and even fun!

Who knew that the art of workspace design could be so complex?

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(Image Credit: Workdesign, Kmillar, Pinterest, Washington Post)

Marketing Executive (Editorial) for We Are Spaces. Economics/finance student who crunches numbers by day and stays up to write by night.

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