Another design-based example is open-plan offices. In the push to lower overheads—and under the false assumption that it would encourage better working practices—private rooms were traded for non-divided workspaces. This resulted in environments that increase stress, particularly due to noise. Stress has become the dominant cost to human health at work. A 2016 report found that stress accounted for 37% of all work-related ill-health cases in the UK and 45% of all working days lost due to ill health.Source
In response to Apple’s new open planned architecture, Rima Sabina Aouf summarises some scrutiny:
Open-plan offices have become more common since the 1990s but have come under scrutiny in recent years. A recent Haworth’s white paper said that open-plan offices are “sabotaging” employees’ ability to focus at work, with office workers losing 28 per cent of their productive time due to interruptions and distractions.
Similarly, Gensler’s 2016 UK Workplace Survey found that workers were more likely to innovate if they had access to a range of spaces supporting different working styles – including private, semi-private and open-plan environments.
These discussions remind me of the experience described by Aaron Swartz.
Wired has tried to make the offices look exciting by painting the walls bright pink but the gray office monotony sneaks through all the same. Gray walls, gray desks, gray noise. The first day I showed up here, I simply couldn’t take it. By lunch time I had literally locked myself in a bathroom stall and started crying. I can’t imagine staying sane with someone buzzing in my ear all day, let alone getting any actual work done.
In many open-plan offices, the drive for increased interaction and collaboration comes at the expense of the ability to focus and concentrate.
When distraction makes it hard for employees to focus, cognitive and emotional resources are depleted. The result is increasing stress and errors, undermining performance.
When employees can’t concentrate on their work, their desire to interact and collaborate with others is reduced.
In some ways, open spaces kill the very thing it is trying to encourage.
Seth Godin reflects upon the creative and collaborative purpose of the office and wonders if the space has lost its place?
As social creatures, many people very much need a place to go, a community to be part of, a sense of belonging and meaning. But it’s not at all clear that the 1957 office building is the best way to solve those problems.