Open plan offices are supposed to create a "collaborative" environment, resulting in more innovation and higher productivity. Unfortunately, the premise behind the idea is fatally flawed because:

  1. Most workplaces suffer from too much communication and too many meetings (information overload). These behaviors balloon inside open plan offices.
  2. While a group of can hone an idea, individuals working alone drive innovation. According to science, collaboration creates mediocrity rather than excellence. 

Given that the premise behind the open plan office is faulty, it's not surprising that the "evidence" for its benefits is entirely anecdotal. If there are peer-reviewed scientific studies showing open plan offices are better than private offices or work-from-home, I haven't been able to find them.

By contrast, there is easily-located, peer-reviewed scientific evidence that open plan offices make people less productive. This is mostly due to noise pollution and visual pollution, which make you less productive through distraction and create stress that seriously damages health.

When it comes to creating stress and resultant health problems, the absolute worst open plan designs are probably the central "islands" where workers face inwards and have their backs open to corridors or walkways.

Such layouts are incredibly stressful because millions of years of human evolution has written into your DNA that 1) you are likely to seriously injured or even killed if attacked from behind, and 2) therefore, if your back is exposed you are automatically in serious danger.

To make matters worse, if you're a woman, sitting with an unprotected back makes you more likely to experience sexual harassment, which is just one of the ways that open plan offices tend to be hostile to women.

Not surprisingly, open plan offices have generated a need for improvisational products that make them less stressful and crazy-making. One of these products is the "Computer Monitor Rearview Mirror." The idea is simple. Clip a mirror to your laptop or desktop screen and it affords you a limited view of what's happening behind your back.

(Personally, if I were unfortunate enough to work at an "island," I'd activate my screen's camera and put the camera feed into a window on the screen, because then I'd get more of a panoramic view. But whatever.)

Regardless of whether you use a doohickey or a camera app, you're just putting a flimsy patch over a huge problem. While you're reducing the risk that you'll be startled, you're creating additional visual pollution while forcing your brain to pay the multitasking tax. What's worse, your DNA will still be screaming to your brain and nervous system that YOU ARE NOT SAFE.

Given the overwhelming evidence that open plan offices are huge health hazards, it's weird and disheartening that there appear to be no government regulations preventing companies from implementing them. Why doesn't OSHA cover this?

In any case, the mere fact that these layouts exist is ample evidence that, despite their endless jargon about ergonomics, most interior designers--and the executives who hire them--lack even a rudimentary understanding of basic human nature.

Published on: May 31, 2018
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