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We're having the wrong conversations about open plan

By Riley Flanigan - posted Friday, 8 November 2019

You're at your desk. Your computer is on. The coffee is taking hold and you've weathered the morning's small talk (Pete's divorce continues). With any luck, the not-so-passive aggression of your high-vis, noise cancelling headphones will deter any predacious chitchat.

You finally settle in to write. Just as your thoughts begin to coalesce, your inbox is invaded. One email is flagged as urgent - damn it Susan, if everything's urgent, nothing is. It's a quick fix and she's cc'd the Director for no reason, so you take 15 minutes to write a professional-ish response. Right, back to writing - where were you again? Your phone buzzes angrily against paper, reminding you of the email you just read. You take the time to clear it up anyway, because the idea of an unopened email (just sitting there) offends you at a biological level.

Ah. Blissfully clear of notifications - this must be how our grandparents felt. But what's this? A LinkedIn notification? LinkedIn's let you down before, but maybe this time… Nope, just your high school friend's dad endorsing you for "problem-solving". Thanks Alan, but I don't need you to lie for me. Your phone rings, Susan again - she couldn't be bothered to read your response, so she's coming over to talk in person. Meanwhile, you're 11 words into a 200 page document and you know those 11 words won't make the final cut. The endless parade of tiny interruptions and interactions keeps the work from the forefront of your thoughts. You can't remember the idea you had a few minutes ago that was so good you knew you didn't need to write it down. Then, muffled through your headphones you hear "Get up to much on the weekend?" It was a Wednesday.


Open Plan is not popular right now

If you Google "Open Plan office articles" you'll need some free time if you want to find a positive take. The general concept of Open Plan has been taken down by most major news outlets, and for good reason - the case against Open Plan is fairly damning.

A 2013 study found that workers in Open Plan environments are frustrated with distractions and a lack of privacy. Notably, the study found that lack of interaction was not a problem that workers wanted solved, while enclosed private offices performed better in most aspects of the performance criteria. An Exeter University study found that open plan offices show a 32% reduction in employee wellbeing and a 15% reduction in productivity. Similarly, a 2011 Danish study found that workers in Open Plan offices take 62% more sick days than workers with private offices. In 2017, leaked accounts circulated of Johny Srouji, Apple's Senior Vice-President of hardware technologies, refusing to work in their new Fosters + Partners-designed open plan campus, fearing for his team's productivity.

Despite the evidence, most new offices are Open Plan

The air-conditioned despair of the cubicle farms iconically depicted in the 1999 film Office Space was at the cusp of a cultural backlash, cementing the Open Plan office as the default in workplace design. Now, according to Gallup's State of the American Workplace Report, around 70% of U.S. offices use some type of open floor plan. Major players in Silicon Valley and the financial sector have adopted Open Plan, including Google, Yahoo, eBay, Goldman Sachs and American Express. In recent years Facebook went all in on Open Plan and enlisted Frank Gehry to design the largest open floor plan in the world, with provision for 3,000 engineers. Meanwhile, the eternally progressive Fins are implementing Open Plan in schools.

Distraction has never been more at hand


In the age of the smartphone, the concept of boredom has been ostensibly eliminated from our lives. Coining "The arms race for attention", former Google Design Ethicist Tristan Harris breaks rank with Silicon Valley, warning that every notification, every menu item, every sound, every animation is painstakingly geared to hold our attention for as long as possible. Silicon Valley's ideological crusade to bring the world together inadvertently put slot machines in the pockets of an entire civilisation and we're only just coming to terms with how much they've changed us. In 2019, relief from this constant state of distraction no longer happens naturally, unless we seek it out.

We've reached "Peak Connectivity"

Seamless, effortless communication has been somewhat hamfistedly held up as the fundamental principle for improving productivity, with the assumption that More Connected = Better Everything. But human beings are not perfect machines, our time and attention are finite resources that our minds are constantly rationing. With the first generation of smartphones now more than a decade behind us, the trade-offs have begun to emerge. A 2012 study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60% of working hours engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30% of a worker's time dedicated to reading and answering email alone. Now, newer attention-hungry communication tools like Slack and Skype are becoming more common in the workplace, expanding their presence into our remaining private moments.

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About the Author

Riley Flanigan is an Australian urban designer and freelance writer with an emphasis on finding common threads between urban planning, political, cultural and economic policy matters. In addition to writing opinion pieces, he finds creative expression in standup comedy, performing in clubs and bars around Brisbane.

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