Last week I explained why open-plan offices are now officially the dumbest management fad of all time. Not only do they decrease rather than increase employee collaboration but they generally have a huge negative impact on productivity.

As if that weren't bad enough,  open-plan offices can make a normal workplace toxic and a toxic workplace even worse. In fact, open-plan offices can do permanent, long-term damage to your health.

This is scary stuff, I realize, but it needs to be known, so that if you're a decision maker, you can steer away from the fad and, if you're a worker bee, you can look for a job that hasn't drunk the Kool-Aid or one that allows you to work from home.

Here's the bad news:

1. Open-plan offices make bad bosses inescapable.

A recent Gallup poll of a million U.S. workers discovered a bad boss is the No. 1 reason people leave their jobs. According to the British Psychological Society, bad bosses can make employees chronically depressed and actively hostile to co-workers.

Open-plan offices make bad bosses even more toxic because there's no easy way to physically separate yourself. With a private office or even a cubicle, you can "take a breather" by physically separating yourself. With open plan, it's open season.

2. Open-plan offices spread communicable diseases.

An uncovered cough or sneeze creates a spray of up to 40,000 disease-ridden droplets that travel at up to 200 mph to a distance of up to 26 feet and stay suspended in the air for up to 10 minutes.

These droplets can make you ill if you breathe them in or, if you avoid that, can stick to your clothes and skin to infect you later. Office walls, and to a lesser extent, cubicle walls, create barriers to these projectiles, greatly lessening the chance that one sick worker will make other workers sick.

3. Open-plan offices drive introverts crazy.

About 50 percent of the population is more introverted than extroverted, and about half of those are very introverted. Since open-plan offices are intended to increase social interactions, extroverts tend to like them. Introverts, on the other hand, feel anxious and drained by the inescapable presence of other people.

According to Psychology Today, introverts are already prone to anxiety. Open-plan offices run the risk of causing introverts to have panic attacks or other stress-related illnesses. Indeed, I have experienced panic attacks when working in an open environment. It's a pretty wretched experience.

4. Open-plan offices create visual pollution.

Office managers love to tout their open plan offices' colorful walls, weird furniture, and hip tchotchkes, all under the strange belief that a visually crowded environment helps employees be more innovative.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Such environments, along with the attendant disorder of other people's work areas, create visual pollution. According to the European Scientific Journal, visual pollution...

"...affects the overall well-being and thus the quality of life of a community, reduces aesthetic appeal, economic health, and civic-sense. This may incite a psychological aversion and thus affect mental and physical health."  

5. Open-plan offices increase gender inequality.

Women face many unique challenges in the workplace, and one of the most insidious is the way that many men (and some women) treat a woman's physical appearance as a proxy for her credibility.

This pervasive workplace bias favors women who are conventionally attractive and have a strong fashion sense, and those who lack either aren't always taken seriously. (Example: could any woman in government get away with looking and dressing like Steve Bannon?)

Open-plan offices exacerbate this bias by increasing the physical visibility of employees, forcing women to pay even more attention to their appearance. Even worse, the seating layout of open-plan offices creates numerous opportunities for plausibly deniable sexual harassment.

6. Open-plan offices stimulate dangerous hormones.

With an open-plan office, your back is always open and unprotected. While you probably aren't intellectually worried about being attacked from behind, your brain and nervous system have millions of years of DNA programming telling you you are not safe.

When you sit with your back exposed, your body constantly produces the stress hormone cortisol, which negatively affects your weight and immune system while creating a greater risk of chronic disease.

7. Open-plan offices can literally result in brain damage.

Open-plan offices force you to multitask because at every moment a part of your brain is focused on what the people around you are saying and doing. This literally makes it impossible for anyone to fully focus on any one thing. And that's a huge problem. According to studies recently cited in Psychology Today:

"People who were frequent media multitaskers had reductions in their brains' grey matter--specifically, in areas related to cognitive control and the regulation of motivation and emotion...and exhibited weakness in both working memory (the ability to store relevant information while working on a task) and long-term memory (the ability to store and recall information over longer periods of time)."

So there you have it. Not only is the ope- plan office a productivity disaster, it turns the workplace into a highly toxic environment that's making employees sick and even damaging their ability to think.

No wonder bosses almost always make sure they get private offices.

Published on: Jul 25, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.