Up Close And Personal. Why Open Plan Sucks When It Comes To Productivity.

I don’t mind admitting it. I like my own space, especially when it comes to thinking. “Give the brain some room,” I cry when needing to get down to some deep thinking work.

How many times have you found yourself sitting on the plane, train or the bus, hoping that empty seat next to you will stay that way, at least until it’s your time to get off. We’re wiling to pay a premium for that extra space too, whether it’s Gold Class or that coveted upgrade on your air ticket.

Our personal space is a no-go zone. Encroach on it and we start to feel uncomfortable, though we don’t want you to go too far away either, because we feel safer around others. The size of that space varies too. Scientists have found higher levels of anxiety increase our need for a bigger safety margin.

So why is it that we continue to put up with the outdated model of open plan offices that are an affront to all brains and our intellect. It’s not just the annoying tapping of your neighbour’s fingernails on the keyboard, or their loud telephone call that grates. Their proximity and noise make us hypersensitive to all those extraneous sounds, increasing our level of distractibility, and goodness me aren’t we distracted enough already?

Wearing noise-cancelling earphones is one solution but can also send out the message that you’re not interested in any form of social interaction, which isn’t wonderful for team or office morale.  

The burden of noise is that it impacts our health, sleep and cognition, because it is a stressor to the brain. While acoustic habituation means we get “used” to certain environmental noise at a conscious level, your brain remains under sensory assault.

According to the World Health Organisation “over one million disability life adjusted years are lost in Western European member states alone due to environmental noise exposure through disturbed sleep and community annoyance.”

Good grief.

What’s needed is better workplace design that recognises that while we’re all different, our best work will always come from operating in a place of safety i.e. one that is less stressful.

Whilst on a trip to Tokyo, my husband found himself in need of an electrical cable (as one does when on holiday) We found a shop that sold nothing except electrical cables! Not only that, there were 8 floors of different electrical cables. (And I used to think going to Bunnings was bad). While making our way through the maze of people and cables, I was feeling increasingly claustrophobic.

It wasn’t just the number of people close by, but also the noise. On each side of the crowded counters, sales staff were using megaphones, competing to drown each other out. Overwhelmed by the sensory overload of noise, people and neon lights I mumbled something to my husband about needing some air and beat a hasty (well, as fast as I could through the milling throng) to get outside into the relative quiet of a busy Tokyo street.

Future work trends indicate more of us will be working from home and more flexible hours. Given the choice, will anyone choose the cubicle farm instead? Because while maintaining human contact and face-to face conversations matters enormously, it shouldn’t be at the expense of good thinking, high stress levels and lower productivity.

The latest research once again confirms that enclosed private offices out perform open-plan in terms of the environmental gains of privacy, noise reduction and too-close proximity to others.

Moreover according to the Acoustical Society of America, what you hear while working in an open plan environment has been found to influence performance and not in the way you might expect.

“Overhearing meaningful noise has a greater negative impact on our selective attention and information processing ability and greater “annoyance” factor than meaningless noise.”

Which may explain why choosing to work in a noisy café is easier than working alongside your chattering office colleagues.

If you’re stuck because you have to work in a crowded and noisy place, you can still benefit by finding a quiet spot somewhere for at least a portion of your day to help to reduce stress and restore a greater sense of calm, albeit on a temporary basis.

Good work design is about incorporating what works best for good thinking, innovation and learning. Teachers know that their students learn best with minimal extraneous distractions. Isn’t it time we removed some of the brain strain by ensuring we can work to the best of our ability, in an optimised environment that supports all brains at work?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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