Are Open Plan Offices Damaging For Our Mental Health?

The hope is they get things done and are good for communication and loneliness - in my experience, open plan offices only worsened all these things
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Open plans offices, like office plants and office coffee stations, are becoming more and more popular as times goes on. I remember in my first job the walls of the various offices being knocked through in order for the managerial staff to sit together and have meetings, without actually having to leave their desks. By the end of the first year nearly all of those managers had left, or opted out of further meetings by changing their work hours.

When I came to London in search of work, a regular female Dick Whittington, I found that every office I worked in were all open plan offices. Not a single company I worked for had separate rooms or departments for the managerial or junior staff.

I understand the hope of open plan offices is to get things done quicker, to communicate and discourage loneliness and gossiping. Yet, in my experience, open plan offices have only worsened all of these things.

If I want to get work done in relative peace and quiet, or my variation of, I have to wear noise cancelling headphones and/or listen to a podcast to block out the hubbub of general office life. If I’m feeling stressed or anxious about something fast approaching in my calendar I have no safe place in which to retreat to regroup and look over my work for encouragement. If I’m annoyed at someone for not working to a deadline, for not being quiet during a work call or for simply telling me to do something I don’t want to do I have no choice but to stare at my computer screen and blind myself with its light in order to maintain a working relationship with them if not a personal one.

This doesn’t exactly describe the basis for a desirable and harmonious work environment.

On some days an open plan office can work nicely, mostly if everyone is in-sync and working on similar projects. You can have conversations whilst working, share snacks around the table and shout good news as it comes in. But other times it can be nothing but distracting and full of noise.

Personally, from working in an open office, I found that my hours were increasing as I was coming into work earlier in order to get as much work done in the peace and quiet. For other’s their days were getting longer as they were staying later in the office, well after closing time, in order to catch up on the work they couldn’t do whilst working in a noisy environment or sitting beside their managers or junior staff.

With regards to managers, it can difficult for both the leaders of a team to sit with their junior staff and maintain a calm and successful vibe when things aren’t always rosy on the business end, but it’s also difficult for the junior staff to have the constant presence of their so-called superior in their space.

Micromanaging is a common disorder of many team leaders in the digital age, one that is exacerbated by open plan offices. Your manager can see your every move you make and if you’re trying to arrange something privately, be it their surprise birthday party or a report on why you deserve a pay rise, the likelihood is that they’re going to see it unless you do all of this out of hours.

Open plan offices are not all bad though. They can be great environment to work in when everyone is feeling jolly and there is a strong connection between employees, usually this happens when there is under ten employees in any one office. But when you start developing departments, and employ more people in a company a natural, yet sometimes toxic, divide appears between the managerial and junior staff, as well as the junior staff and the new starters.

There cannot be a hierarchy in an open plan office as this only creates tension and a constant awareness of that tension. It is part of the reason why the managers from my first job upped and left their comfortable positions, as they could no longer work with or under each other. If they’re all sitting in an office together there is some feeling that they were must be equal in some way, but they were not.

I hope, like Pokemon Go and flossing, that this fad of open-offices fades out with time. This popular ‘team-building’ exercise could be replaced with flexible working hours and shorter working weeks to produce more productivity within a team, rather than have them sitting in an office all day like they’re in a six hour meeting on a loop.

But if that’s not the case then I, personally, need to learn how to compromise. Maybe by stopping eating my lunch al desko everyday, asking for the flexibility to work from home more often, or in cafes down the street from the office every now and then just to keep a hold of my mental health throughout my working life.

After all walls were invented for a reason and open plan offices aren’t healthy in the long term for either growing or substantial businesses.

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