Is open plan working a good plan?

I recently had the total displeasure of sitting smack bang in the middle of an open plan office.

People would constantly be walking past my desk on their way to the kitchen, or toilets; it wouldn’t have been so awful if they had gone about their business quietly. Instead, there would be humming, whistling, a cough right as they were in line with my desk, or answering a phone call as they were hurrying out the room.

Most people would find this mildly irritating, but this is one of the things which makes my skin crawl and my eyes twitch.

Why? I’ve always been incredibly sensitive to noise. There is a Reddit thread that describes this perfectly, so I’m going to share a few lines so you can understand what it is like to be inside my head…

Being someone with ASD, I am unfortunately quite easily distracted by auditory and visual stimuli. I’m particularly sensitive to noise, but I will also get terribly antsy when people close in on my personal space. In terms of getting stuff done, I heavily rely on bursts of hyperfocus, during which I can move mountains and produce top-shelf work.

Unfortunately, like most modern companies we are sat in an open plan office. And with that comes a whole lot of distraction, a very small amount of personal space and a motherload of complicated and unnecessary interpersonal dynamics and politics. From the ‘tap on the shoulder’ (I wish I could electrify myself) to the compulsory birthday celebrations (I don’t even like cake) to the constant running into people who are apparently obsessed with how everyone’s weekend was.

Holy actual shit. This is just like me. Apart from the cake; I love cake.

Open plan offices seem like a great concept on paper:

  • You can fit more people into a single space, rather than needing individual offices
  • You can maximise the square footage of the office. More people in less space = cheaper rent
  • People can chat and share ideas
  • Everyone is present for collaborative work
  • There is often a buzz to the office environment
  • You can play catch with your colleagues or blag a cuppa from a tea round

Open plan is the norm of office life today. So much so that it’s hard to acknowledge there are other ways to set up an office environment. Ultimately, an office should work in a way to maximise productivity for a business, so whilst it might seem cheaper to go open plan, in reality, it may not be the case.

Factor in hours worked versus quality of output, and you’ll probably see that quite a bit of time is eaten up by members of staff being distracted, or being unable to focus due to their environment.

OK, so not every member of a company will be quite as bothered by noise as I am. Auditory stimuli can actually cause me “pain”, as it reverberates in my ears – particularly clapping and the clip-clopping of stilettos. But even non-autistic employees can, and will, get distracted by noise!

In one study, it was found that 99% of employees reported that a noise source caused a ‘slight deterioration’ in their concentration. 57% of employees suffered a ‘major deterioration’ in their concentration.

That seems like a pretty good reason to put this debate back on the table in my opinion.

I know that I can achieve so much more when I don’t have the auditory stimuli puncturing every attempt at deep work. Each cough, sniffle or crisp crunch I hear is just one more thing taking me away from getting a task done, or done well.

I need a nook. Somewhere I can get the quiet time that I need to thrive. I also struggle with visual stimuli in a modern office environment (something I could write a whole post about), as it’s also important to consider that lighting can affect performance too. I crave daylight and avoid the harsh glare of fluorescent strip lighting.

There is certainly a place for collaborative workstations and hubs in offices, where projects and people have this as a necessity. But it shouldn’t be the one assumed standard in all offices, everywhere. Give people the option to dip in and out of collaborative or focused zones, depending on what they’re working on, and their mood.

We are not machines (yet). We have good days, bad days, and everything in between. Taking a keener interest in matching up people to their working environment makes total sense to me.

Frankly, I think this will be even more important as employees start returning to office work after Covid-19; maybe I won’t be the only person who recoils at a cough or a sneeze?

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Mental health blogger & speaker | MSc student mental health nurse
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