Anyone who’s ever shared a desk with me will tell you that I’m a miserable tablemate. I’m so easily irritated that, for the most part, I’m cynical and grumpy. As a highly sensitive, anxious introvert (I hit the trifecta!), the constant sensory input that comes with working in an open office leaves me feeling mentally raw.
Raucous laughter, loud discussions about nothing, audible chewing, one-sided telephone conversations, people stomping (yes, stomping) by my desk every five minutes — just typing it out is making me anxious. I’ve tried to find relief by donning headphones, but the pressure on my ears becomes painful as the day wears on.
For this introvert, working in an open office is a waking nightmare. Of course, not everyone is as sensitive to noise and distraction as I am, but that doesn’t mean the shared work environment is necessarily healthy for them either. Let’s take a closer look at the downsides of the open office concept.
Why the Open Office Needs to Go
Somewhere along the line, companies started operating under the false impression that open floor plans encourage communication and collaboration among employees. However, as we know, not all communication is a good thing. Oftentimes, it’s just a distraction.
Without walls, interruptions, disturbances, and the endless buzz of conversation can completely derail concentration. Visual distractions, ringing phones, and clamoring voices destroy the ability to focus on the task at hand, often leading to sensory overload. Even the most extroverted employee needs some quiet time to absorb and process information in order to be productive. To put it plainly, the open office is where efficiency goes to die — research shows that employees are 15 percent less productive in open offices.
Productivity isn’t the only thing to suffer in a shared work space. Studies have shown that open offices can have an adverse effect on mental well-being and cause an increase in the number of sick days workers take. The sustained stress of sensory overload, as well as the absence of physical barriers to slow the spread of viruses and bacteria, leave employees vulnerable to illness and exhaustion.
For no one is this more true than introverts and highly sensitive people (HSPs.) People in these groups tend to respond more intensely to sensory stimuli, and they typically need quiet, calm, distraction-free environments to be truly productive. They are often uncomfortable when being watched and would much rather have a private space in which to work. As such, the stress of a shared office can lead to a state of constant overstimulation, which is incredibly detrimental to their overall health.
What We Should Be Doing Instead
The backlash against the open office is leading more and more companies to embrace flexible spaces. These “next-generation” environments combine private rooms, collaborative zones, and communal areas to create a hybrid office, wherein employees have the autonomy to work in the location that best benefits their task and mood. By offering a variety of workspaces, companies are looking to increase worker satisfaction and develop a positive company culture.
Unfortunately, flexible offices only work to an extent. Those of us who favor an isolated work environment can’t very well park ourselves in a private room and refuse to move — that’s simply not fair to our coworkers. That’s where remote work comes in. From 1995 to 2015, remote work saw a 28 percent jump — and experts expect that number to reach 50 percent by 2020. For many introverts, working from home is a dream come true. It allows them the calm and comfortable setting they need to get their work done and really wow their employers.
Some employers worry that flexible spaces and remote work prevent collaboration and fracture company culture. This is only true if the company doesn’t implement new (and exciting) ways to fill these gaps. Team lunches, brainstorming sessions, communal chats, and company retreats are all fantastic ways to keep the team bond strong. While establishing and maintaining company culture isn’t quite as easy with remote workers, it’s certainly not impossible. Besides, aren’t happy, productive employees worth the extra work?
It’s true that packing workers into an office like sardines costs a lot less than building private offices for each person, but the loss in productivity substantially outweighs the savings. When productivity suffers, so too does employee morale — and unhappy employees rarely stay for very long. Giving workers the tools and environment they need to do their job well is the best way to encourage good employees to stick around.
So please, if you’re a manager, HR professional, or member of the C-suite in your company, please do all of your employees (but especially the introverted ones) a favor and ditch the open office. You won’t regret it.
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