Are Open-Plan Offices Ruining Your Inclusion Efforts?

Picture this – you are at your desk, filed alongside several others. You open your email to provide critical feedback on a time-sensitive project, as your colleagues behind choose this very moment to discuss their weekend plans. You plug in your headphones to tune them out but as you do, you spot your neighbour from the corner of your eye, waving, trying to get your attention. They need you for five minutes to sign off on something. 45 minutes later, you are left staring at the first line in the email you started, “I just thought of another way to approach this problem”. Unable to remember what this idea was, you are left feeling stuck and unproductive.  


Modern, Open-Plan Workspaces Do Not Work For Everyone  

Such scenarios and interruptions are common in any open-plan offices. Research shows that noise impairs our ability to recall information and that it will take you more than 23 minutes to recover from an interruption. But disruption to workflow isn’t the only critique of open plan workspaces. There are also implications on how these spaces can create a ‘fish-bowl’ effect, place undue importance on facetime and allow biases to creep into how we determine productivity, to name a few. Furthermore, recent studies point to these factors disproportionately impacting women more than men in the workplace. There are striking differences in the impact of open workspaces, with a new study revealing that women feel more visible, exposed and report experiencing the ‘’male gaze” frequently at work. The building body of research on products, workspace designs and even office temperatures being male-centric is a conversation for another time. However, all of this highlights the psychological costs associated with the discomfort caused by physical workspaces that are not inclusive of everyone’s needs.  

The impact goes beyond gender differences. In fact,  open-plan offices can deeply affect the working experience for introverts. Extroverts thrive off the release of dopamine, which is stimulated by energetic, physical interactions. In contrast, the very same interactions can overwhelm introverts, whose brains have fewer dopamine receptors and crave acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter calms the nervous system, enabling deep thinking and reflection for a more extended period. Interestingly, an open plan office could also increase levels of stress and anxiety for high performing employees. The feeling of being watched and the pressure to appear busy can exacerbate the levels of performance anxiety they experience. And, when it comes to differently-abled employees, we must perhaps go back to the fundamental question of accessibility.  


Virtual Workspaces, Better Than Open-Plan Offices?  

Virtual workplace interactions, on the other hand, do not pose such challenges, with everyone confined behind a screen, speaking into a pinhole camera. Though this has rarely been the case until most of us had to move to work remotely considering the global pandemic and the disruption businesses faced everywhere.  

Virtual working has gifted us the flexibility and freedom we need to create our optimal working environment. Although this depends on factors of space and whether they live alone or not, to a great extent, the feeling of being watched does not persist in our homes. For some, this could have well and truly improved collaboration and innovation, which is closely linked to psychological safety

As introverts thrive in their quiet time with fewer interruptions to their workflow, extroverts are reporting a harder time, feeling under-stimulated and socially disconnected. Collectively, employees are finding virtual interactions exhausting, with, ‘zoom fatigue’ unofficially becoming the new expression of ‘burnout’. Working virtually allows us to work anywhere, anytime. This can lead to an ‘always-on’ work culture where it becomes more challenging to strike a balance between professional and personal commitments. With a greater inability to switch off, stress levels inevitably increase. 

The virtual working environment can level the playing field physically:  women are less likely to be  talked over by taller, louder colleagues. Video calls can subvert some of the unconscious effects of an in-person conversation. However, women are far from feeling safer in their virtual workspace as it brings virtual sexual harassment home too. Employees working from home have reported an increase in sexual harassment in the form of jokes, gestures and comments.  Women also tend to carry a physical and mental burden of juggling working from home and managing their household “duties”. Particularly in India, the lockdown situation has exposed the unspoken sexism present in many dual-income families.   


Enhancing Psychological Safety In Our Physical And Virtual Workspaces 

While the virtual working space may not be a replacement for an open-plan office, it gives us insight into different ways of working and managing expectations on how we expect people to work. It also makes a case for employees being able to do their most productive work when given autonomy and flexibility. So, as many businesses get ready to transition their operations back to either an entirely physical workspace or a hybrid work arrangement, here are some ideas on enhancing psychological safety through physical design.  

Organisations could consider creating soundproof phone booths for employees to take either personal phone calls or business calls to address the lack of privacy in an open-plan setup. Also, consider setting up private conference areas for disciplinary conversations or work discussions involving confidential information. This also helps minimise the auditory disruptions to others around them. In a similar vein, creating “comfort corners” or promoting the use of smaller work pods can help employees move around and find quieter spaces to work uninterrupted.  

It is essential to be mindful that enforcing workspaces within an open plan office can also have a detrimental effect. Some have opted for “greening” their office spaces with indoor plants and “green walls” to help create privacy and reduce sound. This is also linked to increased productivity and attentionreduced sick leave and stress levels as well as enhanced job satisfaction and positive mood.  

This applies to virtual work in terms of meeting design, technology and training offered. Programmes and information to raise awareness of online harassment, setting up clear policies and sharing of reporting procedures need to be prioritised. You may want to spend time to establish the new cultural norms in your organisations’ online world. Encourage managers and people leaders to consult their teams to clarify the new norms or discuss how the existing norms apply in the current context. 

Most importantly, an open-plan office is not a solution or ‘workaround’ to the culture within your organisation. While frequent and visible accessibility to team members and management can enhance collaboration and innovation, what makes conversations happen is trust. Working in an open-plan office within teams that are void of trust (which is an essential element to establish psychological safety) can do more harm than good for your employees and overall productivity.  


About the Author: Sakshi Kumar, Programme & Content Manager, DIAN at Community Business