headphones are the new wall_smMy first taste of an open office plan took me by surprise.

Several years ago, I was on the first day of a new job, and was led into an office meant for one person. In that office were three desks, one each for me and my two officemates.

I looked around, incredulous. I thought it was temporary—surely, I’d be moved to a cubicle. Maybe they just hadn’t sorted out the final seating arrangement yet. (Remember, this was before open offices were the norm.)

But I was wrong. This tech company put multiple people in an office meant for one person to “foster creativity”. I knew the real reason—fitting more people in less space.

A few months into my employment, my officemates and I had to relocate to a different room, this time, with a big window. There was tension as the other two quietly vied for who would get the window view.

They were shocked when I told them I didn’t care about the window, but that my only wish was to not have to face someone, or have someone staring at the back of my head.

Months later, I expressed to my boss that I’d love to sit in a cubicle; I’d do anything to get out of that shared office. Everyone thought I was weird. Who would give up a shared office with a window–for a cubicle?

A highly sensitive introvert, that’s who. Someone who views having a modicum of privacy to be as essential as oxygen.

I detest open offices, and you know what? The research seems to show that pretty much everyone else does, too.

For an introvert, being in the same room with so many people for so many hours takes massive amounts of mental energy, even if we’re not interacting.

With open offices, noise and distraction is the default. Shouldn’t privacy and quiet be the default?

Why Do Open Offices Exist?

Open offices are perceived as hip, cutting-edge, innovative, and modern. Fans say it fosters collaboration, relationships, and the spread of information.

Why It Doesn’t Work

A 2011 study showed that while “open offices often fostered a symbolic sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were damaging to the workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.” 1

A cube dweller at Fast Company wrote, “The theory that when people are in proximity they’ll jump in on each other’s conversations to create new and unexpected ideas? That never happens. When we’re mushed together, our primary goal is to not talk to each other.” 2

On non-stop distractions: “Less privacy and more noise can take a toll…workers may find themselves distracted or display poorer cognitive performance when it comes to tasks that involve a lot of math or memorization.” 6 “Not long ago, listening to music at one’s desk would have been viewed as unprofessional. Today, it’s essentially mandatory to get work done. Headphones have become a necessary coping mechanism. Headphones have replaced cubicles.” 5

“Headphones are the new wall.”  -Ray Udeshi 7

Open Offices are Unhealthy

Working in open plan offices has been associated with higher blood pressure 3, more sick days, and higher levels of the hormone adrenaline (i.e., stress).4

Why Open Offices are Especially Bad for HSPs

It’s all about privacy and choice. Highly Sensitive People hate feeling like they have no control over their actions or their surroundings.

In an open office, being so open to distractions at any moment means that your time is never really your time. You can never relax and feel alone. There is never a moment you can let yourself be completely off.

A 2005 study found that the “ability to control the environment had a significant effect on team cohesion and satisfaction. When workers couldn’t change the way that things looked, adjust the lighting and temperature, or choose how to conduct meetings, spirits plummeted.” 1 

HSPs are hyper-conscientious. An HSP in an open office would expend so much energy trying to be considerate about every single little thing that they’d be completely drained. For example, as this anti-open office author wrote, “I’ve barely gotten to know my colleagues–and it’s because every time I open my mouth, I feel bad knowing that I’m definitely distracting someone.” 2

“The business community insists this is good for me. Supposedly, by all of us being mushed together instead of provided the pleasure of private ­offices, we’re to form a beating heart of collaboration. And yet, because we’re sitting together, we’re doing everything we can to create the sense that we’re apart.” 2

The Next Big Thing

Now, the really modern, ahead-of-the-trend workplaces are implementing a mixture of design elements. Open workspaces, private rooms, couches, nap rooms, lounges, café-like areas. Workers can go where they want, depending on how they feel. They regain some control and choice to work in a way that is best for them.

It’s better, but still doesn’t sound good to me. Does that mean that every day, I have to battle for the work area I want? I have to worry about if someone will be sitting where I want to sit? Sounds like anxiety. I guess you can’t please everyone. (The best solution  is to leave all this nonsense behind and work for yourself.)

If you hear that your company is considering a switch to open offices, give this article to your HR Department. It’s the best, most awesome take-down of the trend that I’ve seen. Oh, and start looking for a new job….just in case. 😉

1 The Open-Office TrapMaria Konnikova, The New Yorker
2 Two Cube Dwellers Argue Over Open Offices. Who's Right? Jason Feifer and Anjali Mullany, Fast Company.
3 Open-plan offices were devised by Satan in the deepest caverns of hell. Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian. 
4 How Your Office Is Harming Your Health. Carolyn Gregoire, The Huffington Post. 
5 RIP Cubicles: Why Agencies Are Gaga Over Open-Office Plans. Matt Van Hoven, Digiday.com.
6 Study: Open Offices Are Making Us All Sick. Rachel Feintzeig, The Wall Street Journal.
7 From Cubicles, Cry for Quiet Pierces Office Buzz. John Tierney, The New York Times.

photo credit: #96 via photopin cc