CXO

Why your open office space is messing up your brain

A session at SXSW 2016 looked at the psychological ramifications of open offices, including memory loss and heightened stress levels.

Image: Erin Carson/TechRepublic

"I hate working in an open office space," said Bryan Borzykowski, contributor to BBC.com Capital.

He's not the only one. Borzykowski co-led a session at SXSW Interactive, in Austin, Texas with Marlone Henderson, associate professor at University of Texas, Austin, on the effects of offices spaces on the brain. When he asked the room how many people worked in an open office, most raised their hands. When he asked how many actually liked it, the number was less than half.

The open office space has come into vogue in recent years. Originally, it was conceived as something that would encourage productivity and flatten hierarchy within companies, and surely companies like Google have added a glamour and cool to these unconventional spaces.

However, a slew of studies has come out with very little good to say about open concept offices.

For one, Borzykowski mentioned that often the motivations behind creating open spaces have more to do with money than creativity. Companies often look at the budget savings of being able to cram more people onto one floor.

The Journal of Environmental Psychology found that productivity falls by 15% amongst workers in open concept offices. Of the respondents, 50% complained of a lack of privacy, and 40% complained specifically of the lack of visual privacy.

SEE: 10 ways to avoid work-at-home traps

Noise is also a huge factor. Borzykowski used the example of a brief stint of his at a music magazine. The small editorial staff had an open concept office, and one of the news editors had a tendency to get in screaming matches with her husband on the phone.

"I'm sure he was yelling in his open concept office on the other side," Borzykowski said. He didn't stay in the job long.

For the more self-conscious, it's been found that being in a crowd changes the way people think and present information. So, those in open offices have the tendency to discuss issues more broadly and generally, which isn't good if a task requires attention to detail.

Noise negatively impacts concentration, memory, and stress levels. In fact, people exposed to 3 or more hours of a noisy environment have increased levels of epinephrine in their brains, which is the chemical found when the autonomic nervous system's fight-or-flight response is triggered.

The thing about stress is that it makes people sick.

Studies have found a 62% increase in the number of sick days taken among those who work in an open office, and a 32% decrease in workers' well-being overall.

All that said, Henderson talked about how to improve your space. The fact is, unless you're the CEO of a company, there's nothing you can do about your open office.

The suggestion, while not a full-on remedy, is plants and pictures.

"The key is not the plant, it's control," Borzykowski said. Workers are happier when they can have some control over their spaces. Further, Henderson even recommended pictures featuring far off places and broad horizons. Even though those motivational posters with the black frames and all-caps inspiring words underneath some vista are a classic office cliche, they're actually the right type of visual. Those images encourage more of a feeling of freedom versus confinement, and that's important for the modern office worker.

Henderson also suggested getting up and getting out of the office for walks.

Another consideration Borzykowski and Henderson discussed is the effect of open offices on employee-supervisor relationships. Borzykowski used an example of a friend who recently lost his office. Now, when he has to talk with an employee, he has to go through the awkward, stress-inducing process of pulling them into some conference room, when he could have just nabbed them casually the next time they walked past his door. Remember getting called to the principal's office in elementary school? It's stressful, even if you're not in trouble.

And as much as open offices supposedly flatten hierarchy, Borzykowski said this: "The window is the new corner office." Power dynamics remain.

So, get a plant, or a picture of a desert expanse, and maybe some really nice noise-cancelling headphones. Or better yet, a work-from-home gig.

For companies, Henderson said, "It may look like there's more cost saving early on, but you'll lose on productivity."

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Erin Carson is a Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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