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Gavin Greig [userpic]

Open Season on Open Plan

January 14th, 2009 (08:41 pm)
current location: KY16 8SX

There are plenty of arguments against open plan offices, some of which are pretty compelling, but as with most topics, counter-arguments are easy to come by. That’s why a paper recently published by a Dr. Vinesh Oommen in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management could be quite significant.

It’s “a large-scale literature review of everything written and researched about open plan offices and how they affect employees” and it finds that “in 90 percent of research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative” (see press release for more).

That’s a big deal, because it’s not just a solitary paper, which could be impeccably well-researched but dismissed as “Ah well, that doesn’t apply to our situation”. This is an overview of the current state of human knowledge of open-plan offices, which says that overwhelmingly, in a nut-shell, they are found to suck. Traditional, private offices with a door are better.

This paper isn’t going to change the popularity of open plan offices overnight, but I tell you what – it should! I’ll do my small bit to help by mentioning it here; thanks to tobyaw, who brought it to my attention first although I’ve seen it crop up elsewhere since.


Posted by: It's my brain and I'll do what I like in it (pink_weasel)
Posted at: January 14th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC)
thoughtful on the road

I would hate to work in a private office. Absolutly loathe it. Instead of working, I would cry and be lonely and consider those office walls a prison of misery.

I would rather have a private office than an office radio though, that would be the worst hell.

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: January 14th, 2009 10:02 pm (UTC)

I do see the down sides to private offices. It's easy to get isolated, as I found when I was doing my Ph.D. from a private office. That was pretty dreadful, because there wasn't anyone to speak to about what I was doing even when I did get out of the office. Lonely, inadequate - I've felt that!

So making sure it's possible to talk to others is important too. I think the ideal (IMHO) would be to have a team's private offices around a common space, and only to close doors when you need the peace to get on with things. I've yet to get to the point where that aspect of things becomes a significant part of the discussion though.

Intrusive noise is the biggest issue for me. tobyaw finds that an open-plan office works OK for him when it's shared with other quiet workers, and I can see that might be the case. But I'm trying to think fairly abstract software development thoughts in a room full of other people answering phones, chatting with each other, and occasionally bursting into song, ringing bells or announcing loudly to the whole office that they've arrived or are about to leave...

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Posted by: myceliumme (myceliumme)
Posted at: January 14th, 2009 11:41 pm (UTC)
Re: Open v Private

Agreed. Even in an office of 8 regulars (plus 2 reps and 2 folk from the parent company occasionally visiting), noise can get overwhelming to the point of having to pause a legitimate (and hopefully quiet) work phone-conversation to ask people to cease talking so loudly about non-work-related stuff. And my desk is in the relatively isolated 'geek corner'.

However, when there are fewer than 4 people in the office, it can seem lonely. Also, I can't say I never display aspects of the office life-forms mentioned.

I'm sure I've read of a tent system similar to ggreig's ideal: individual or couple-flavoured sleeping-tents that can dock into a central communal area. However, that may have been in some bit of sci-fi. Anyone else recall it?

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: January 15th, 2009 09:05 pm (UTC)
Re: Open v Private

I made the mistake of asking, as a courtesy, whether it was OK to ask people to try to keep the volume down when possible, rather than just doing it. I was told no, it wasn't OK.

Posted by: myceliumme (myceliumme)
Posted at: January 15th, 2009 09:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Open v Private

Bah! Could you ask for noise-cancelling headphones? Or maybe offer to telework. (Then you wouldn't have to waste time travelling to work and you could sweeten that deal for them by volunteering for a wage-cut exactly in line with your reduced travel costs.)

There were 4 of us at work today. Twice I had to ask folk to keep noise down while I was talking with an author who was telling me about corrections to a proof. It's rather embarrassing to ask authors to hold for moment. Maybe next time I should let them hear me asking for quiet?

Posted by: Gavin Greig (ggreig)
Posted at: January 15th, 2009 09:43 pm (UTC)
Re: Open v Private

Noise cancelling headphones are good at cancelling out the steady noise you don't notice anyway - like air conditioning - but they don't do much for more dynamic noise like speech.

Telework has not been ruled out, but it's also yet to be ruled in and no-one seems in a hurry to make a decision.

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