Open plan, not working

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman - https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

Nanobot protected cubicle (Photo by Kevin Trotman – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kt)

This post has taken me an eon to complete. Most of the time, when I’ve wrangled with it, my biggest difficulty was trying to find a rational voice to use.

Academics like to think of themselves as adding reasonable, informed voices to debates. Conflicts of interest and biases must be declared.

Instead of waiting for a rational voice, then, I’m just going to write this post and declare my huge bias against open plan offices.

If you follow me on Twitter and elsewhere, you’ll know that I’ve ranted consistently about them, and the weasel-worded reasoning that’s often presented as their justification. I’m writing from the perspective of a humanities/social sciences background academic, not someone who works in a lab-based or research-team environment (so, ymmv).

In May this year, Oliver Burkeman (Guardian) wrote a cracker of a piece against open plan offices and who they actually benefit (hint: not those in open plan). This arrangement of workers has become the norm for new offices in most sectors, and universities are no exception.

The reasons that are most often given to staff as the benefits of open plan include: free flow of ideas and heightened collaborative opportunities among staff, easier identification as a cohort with your colleagues (recognition of your ‘team’), and better communication overall because of frequency of seeing others. You’ll see that I’ve deliberately not used the word ‘synergies’.

The reasons why this style has become more prevalent seem obvious to me but are rarely the reasons stated up front to staff: it’s cheaper (‘shared resources’), you get higher staff density and levels of occupancy (so the logic goes) in a workspace (read: it’s cheaper), and it actively feeds the competitive peer-to-peer monitoring that is the bane of many academics’ lives.

Let’s get these basic points about open plan out there from the get-go:

There’s overwhelming evidence that open offices are associated with lower job satisfaction; poorer interpersonal relations; worse concentration and creativity; damaged sleep, thanks to people working farther from windows; and more sickness, due to the potential for infection.

[E]xperts who have studied the matter say those off-the-cuff chats [in open plan offices] are pretty superficial, because people are self-conscious about being overheard.  (Burkeman, This column will change your life)

For academia, the new corporate style of staff offices also means a harsher emphasis on hierarchies. These were always there, with academic levels determining how many square metres staff were allocated.

Today, though, lower level academics (e.g. Level A’s or Associate Lecturers in Australia), PhD students, and research assistants are often located in cubicle-farms and hot-desks. These are the ‘share-offices’ of today. They’re sites where it’s very difficult to meet with your students or colleagues as there’s no privacy, so all meetings of any substance must take place in pre-booked rooms or external spaces. I like meeting with people in cafes; it’s a choice I like to have. But it’s a different situation entirely when meeting in cafes or elsewhere – away from my everyday workspace – are a necessity for getting my basic work done.

Even if you do score an office, it’s probably a goldfish bowl. Higher level academics often still have their own offices, with Associate Professors and Professors having the largest ones – square metreage still applies. Bookshelf spaces, however, are limited by the fact that there’s so much glass to be accommodated and shelves cannot run against those surfaces.

Personal academic libraries at your place of work are increasingly considered a thing of the past – or, if you must hang on to your dead-tree items, they’re likely to be housed at home. For me, this raises questions of whether the workplace is actually accommodating the work that an academic is meant to do. In addition, as @jasondowns commented, it can also be about locating (and losing?) scholarly identity.

Similarly, if the everyday workspace is at a constantly high level of aural and visual distraction, more academics will choose to work elsewhere (home, cafe, booked meeting rooms). Again, this raises the question of whether the workplace is meeting the needs of its staff. I choose to do #shutupandwrite for the productivity and company; again, it’s my choice. For others, it’s a necessity; their workspaces aren’t conducive to focused work and decent writing.

The most irksome thing about the trend in open offices is that it’s presented as being responsive to the different, tech-enabled working practices of academics. But any flexibility that’s gained is by the workplace in space usage, not by the staff member in terms of choosing how they want to work. While universities are very strong on the rhetoric of flexible work, they are far less accommodating of them in practice. Indeed, open offices breed an insidious culture of being seen to be present and accountable through spending time at your desk. Poor managers and supervisors depend on surrounding themselves with their staff, as if their physical presence equals getting work done.

The current structure of academia and how academic achievement is measured, however, works against the supposed benefits of open office formats. As Pinder et al argue in the conclusion of their report on new academic workspaces:

we observe that whilst increasing collaboration is frequently put forward as a reason for developing new types of academic office space, the academic reward system is still based primarily around individual achievement, and the starting point – doctoral research – is largely a solitary activity. Neither provides a great incentive for collaboration. If research at the interfaces of knowledge domains is the future, then the academic career model is, to some extent, history. (Pinder at al, 2009, The case for new academic workspaces; emphasis added)

It won’t surprise you to learn that I have a lot to say about the regimes of new academic collaborative models, particularly in terms of whether the collaboration is good for the research area or only serving a metrics-based purpose for the researchers, but that’s for another post.

The evidence to date about the effectiveness and satisfaction of staff in open plan contexts indicates that they are unlikely to generate or foster quality research collaborations or, indeed, enhance collegiality.

So, I wish they’d stop telling us that story.

Tell us another story, then I can get my teeth into that one, too.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

31 Responses to Open plan, not working

  1. Elaine Swan says:

    I so hear you. The trend for “atria” also causes noise problems. I have started to wonder if we’re not meant to read or think?

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I have to say that contemporary office spaces are not geared for uninterrupted work. It isn’t that hard to be accessible to colleagues, students, whoever, without this having to mean that you’re _always_ accessible. I think a lot of the angst generated by open plan is the taking away of choice when it comes to interaction and whether to engage.

      For me, it’s the most irritating when you feel forced to discuss issues because people just lob into your space and expect you to attend to their demands. Asking them to go away and make an appointment is a social obstacle to negotiate…

  2. Rodrigo Reis says:

    I often work from home (when I can do so) to avoid working in my office. To make things worse, it’s a open office located behind the kitchen space, which is also an open space. Drives me crazy when I have work to do during tea and food time – by the way different people have very different times to be hungry I figured….

  3. Katie Freund says:

    I wonder what steps can be taken to improve or change this situation, or at least make changes to make it more flexible for the workers themselves. I would like to see more quiet working rooms (with doors!), more small meeting rooms (with doors!), and comfortable spaces for reading (…with doors!) in addition to the rows of open plan desks. But I’m not sure how to advocate for this in my own workplace?

    I also wonder about setting up rules/understandings with colleagues in advance about making noise in the space – answering phones, having conversations, etc. I suppose it is up to individual managers to work on this?

    • I wonder about this too. What constructive steps can be taken to make open plan offices work better for the people who work in them? Headphones are always an option, but it feels rude to put them on. Small meeting and reading rooms are a great idea, as are having kitchens that are in a separate room so nearby staff don’t need to listen to everyone’s conversations in the kitchen.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      ANU has this set of open plan guidelines online: http://cass.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/documents/ppes-office/Guidelines%20for%20Working%20in%20Open%20Plan%20Offices.pdf

      Usually, area managers or higher-ups circulate guidelines for open plan space (when everyone first moves in), and re-send when there are rashes of complaints. This doesn’t really fix anything, or take care of repeat open plan etiquette offenders.

      It’s v. difficult to find alternative spaces for working unless those spaces have been factored into the open plan context. Many offices do try and do this now, but it’s still – to me – a big ask to have to regularly shift core work to another room.

      Maybe I’m too wedded to the idea of having my own workspace? Some workplaces now have NO personal workspaces – there are only moderate focus and high focus areas of the office and you choose what you need at any given time. I would hate that.

      • I’m quite attached to having my own workspace too. It makes sense to shift workplace for indepth conversations and to do reading or marking up of documents but it’s hard to do that for many other tasks. Thanks for the link to the ANU guidelines Tseen.

  4. Open plan offices have been the norm throughout my working life, so to some extent I know no different. However I do wonder how that has influenced my working practices – the concept of “presenteeism” resonates heavily with me, and I actually find it very hard to leave my desk to do other kinds of tasks (even if they are productive and necessary ones). Whether that’s trained guilt, inertia, or a mixture of both, it’s really hard to tell.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      The most enduring thing in contemporary offices is still the need to ‘check in’ and be seen to be doing your work. Given the rise of remote working and flexible work practices, I would’ve thought this might change! Does it boil down to trust (between supervisor and staff member), between one unit and another?

      • Peter Bentley says:

        I think there may be a misunderstood conflation between open-plan and presenteeism. They need not be connected and most likely result from antiquated managerial beliefs of individual supervisors. There is no reason to believe that open-plan causes presenteeism. A manager who felt the need to “manage by eyeball” would do so regardless of open-plan offices. I don’t think it just boils down to trust, it is about having clear work expectations. If performance is managed effectively, the number of days one is visible at the office would be an irrelevant consideration.

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        I agree with most of what you say, that presenteeism is a result of antiquated managerial beliefs, and the fact that visibility in the office is irrelevant as long as the work that needs to be done is done. I do think, however, that while not causing it, open plan offices do lead to a feeling from some managers that they need to be seen to be surrounded by their ‘people’. Open plan + goldfish bowl offices do lead to a hyper-transparent workplace in terms of seeing who’s around. The proximity of units in open plan can lead to fairly absurd situations – I’ve heard of several where a manager’s team that is not often in office (they’re at meetings/presenting/whatever), and this is used as a judgement on that manager and how hard their team is working (therefore, how valuable they are). I would love to see some focused work on these kinds of dynamics (I’m dealing in anecdotes only for this comment!).

  5. We are about to move to a workplace that is open plan for research support staff but has offices for academic staff. Quite apart from the spatial hierarchy this creates, I’m very concerned (as one of those support staff) about how much work I’ll actually be able to get done when I have to constantly hear colleagues on the phone, talking to each other, etc. I tend toward introverted characteristics so I’m already exhausted at the end of a day in an office that I share with just one colleague.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Oh, Mel. I am totally with you on this one, having been a professional staff member who was in open plan. Is the presumption that professional staff never have to do any focused, high-level work? It’s not a question of arguing ‘importance’ of work, but type of space required. The hierarchies are so embedded.

      • M-H says:

        We have 7 staff in offices and about 12 in open plan (professional unit). What we have feels incredibly private – before this we were *all* in one big space with low dividers. A previous manager used to refer to the car park outside as his office – as in “Step into my office” when he had to talk privately to a staff member. Tough luck if it was was raining. To make it worse we operate a helpdesk, and so there were always people on the phone and we could all hear the calls. I thought it was incredibly disrespectful to expect us to work in that situation.

        But in our now better surroundings – i.e. a cubicle farm for most staff – we have developed a series of conventions. If someone has headphones on they don’t wish to be disturbed – often working with video or doing complex coding or website work. Phones are to be muted or the sounds kept low, and people are expected to go outside to take or make a call. As well as the meeting rooms we have another room that isn’t used much – such luxury – that can be used for private discussions, or they can take place in an office that is presently unoccupied. And loud social noise is frowned on, although of course it does break out from time to time. Best of all, when staff are rostered on helpdesk they work in a separate room with a closing door, so at any given time at least four desks in the cubicle farm are unoccupied, and the place never feels crowded.

        I don’t think any of this is ideal – I’d love to see our staff two-to-an-office – but it is what it is and we seem to be pretty productive in it.

      • Tseen Khoo says:

        I think being within a context where people are respectful of each other’s physical and aural space makes a huge difference. It’s the everyday irritation factor that can be the most wearing (and Berserker-inducing). Really interesting to hear about your set-up, M-H. Thanks for sharing.

  6. wysehaslam says:

    Not just academics who feel that way about open offices – it’s often about how you work and as I thoroughly enjoy heated debates with myself whilst editing having my own office is a benefit – not only for me but my colleagues. What I have noticed is that having been in open offices, satellite offices and separate offices is that building casual professional relationships is often harder when everyone is in their own office, especially when you don’t have a communal space but I believe that can be addressed by culture.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Yes, I’m not a great believer in forcing people into the same space just to build stronger team connections or collegial/collaborative relationships. The likelihood of these bringing about spontaneous culture change is pretty low.

      Everyone has particular work styles, and reducing it to the one-size-ness (and dislocation) of open plan / zoned areas chafes more with some than others. And, of course, there are some who love the new corporate formats. Some.

  7. julzpreston says:

    Great post Tseen!

    My PhD ‘office’ was literally a re-purposed broom closet with 3 of us crammed in. My postdoc office housed about 35 students and postdocs. My first non-academic post started in an open plan office with 9 others. In each of those I was able to block out noise or signal that I shouldn’t be disturbed, so it worked reasonably well most of the time.

    About 6 months ago I moved into my own office. I hated it. I missed the interaction with other people, the chance to turn and ask a question, or help others when they needed something. Now I’m not sure I want to go back. I can close the door when I need to be alone, or play music if I so choose. The need to get up and seek out colleagues, most also in single offices, has forced me to think about why I’m really interrupting them (though sometimes I fail and it’s still trivial).

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That’s really interesting, Julie, that you missed the open plan initially. When I was in jobs that didn’t require focused writing and high-level research/review tasks, being in open plan didn’t jar as much. To do academic/focused intellectual stuff, though, I find open plan unworkable.

      I think the weighing up of whether it’s worth interrupting someone is a good point – in open plan, or share offices, it’s too easy to just keep calling out trivial questions or updating others unnecessarily. I find myself doing it at times.

  8. Like several people who have already commented, I’ve always worked open plan, except for the occasional short stint in a shared office. The only exception is when I work at home, where I find it incredibly hard to actually do any work – too easy to skive off.

    Some of the issue here is around choice vs compulsion. Do you dislike working in open plan offices? Would you prefer to take your laptop to your favourite cafe? Actually, the noise level and ‘open-ness’ is probably higher in the cafe, but it can be a nicer place to work. You get away from annoying co-workers and that feeling of surveillance. You feel more in control of your life and your work. And the coffee is nicer.

    I absolutely agree that open plan is all about cramming more people in less space and building management flexibility, not worker flexibility. But it is also sometimes about a nameless fear that people won’t work unless they are being watched.

    In the short term, have a look at what your library is doing for students, Katie. At my university, they are building exactly the sort of spaces for students so that they can do work together, or work in peace. Bookable spaces with doors. It isn’t that hard.

    As Tseen says, if we want to change this culture in the long term, then we need to speak truth to power. Call it what it is. Then, at least, we can start an honest discussion.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I’ve often thought about why I like cafe working but dislike open plan. I would say that there is an element of feeling more free at a cafe, but it’s also that ambient noise in a cafe is v. different from the specific noisiness of open plan offices (e.g. people talking on phones or over partitions intrude much more than background crockery clinking and general conversational hum).

      Working in solo space does require discipline. It’s a discipline that needs exercise, I’ve found…

  9. Daniel says:

    Worked in an open plan office during my PhD, and the only way to survive it was headphones — with music first, later sound-blocking ones usually found on construction sites. Most PhDs who had to work in that office came to the conclusion that it’s just not conductive to scientific work — almost impossible to concentrate for long stretches of time. And if you have other PhDs who like to talk loudly (on the telephone) or are mobbing … it’s hell on Earth. I did some of my best work at night (no one else there) or in the university library (a lot of people there, but all unknown to me and working). I think the only use they have is to continue to use PhDs as cheap workforce for pre-planned projects.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I was in a share office of 4 for most of my PhD and was always trying to find a time where I didn’t overlap with the others. At least I had a dedicated workspace, though, which meant a lot! People are lucky if they have office-mates with whom they are sympatico in work habits and levels of noise tolerance.

  10. ozzietassie says:

    Lets see – my first PhD office was a fought for space in the old clinical building which I shared with another PhD student and a lab manager. I wasnt there much. My 2nd PhD office I shared with 4 other PhD students on our main campus – another fought for desk space (I was in this area limbo, as while my inital supervisor worked with the MEU, my work crossed over between Epi and Ethics and thus no one really wanted to know me), and my final PhD desk space was a supposed “hot desk” in the new “open plan” offices in the new building. I was SUPPOSED to have one of the permanent desks with storage etc, but someone clued into the fact I was a PhD first and my Level A appointment was transitional. I HATED it. I used headphones to block out noise, but as I tend to sing to myself it drove other people nuts. In the end I gave up and did most of my work in cafes or at home.
    Current job started in a shared office with 2 and then 3 other people in the back room of the hospital, I then moved into a windowless meeting room, while the finance and executive officer shared an office down the hall. This was vaguely bareable, if I ignored the gossip from the old loves waiting to do hyrotherapy at the pool.
    I now have an office, with a door, and a window. I can block the world out if needed, or invite them in if I want to. I once heard open plan offices referred to as “meerkat central” as everyone pops up and down trying to see what is going on. I dont know a single academic who LIKES open plan offices – particularly when you have expensive text books you use for reference and have no where to store them…..

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      See, I was thinking that I was so anti-open plan because I’d been ‘spoilt’ by my own office as a research fellow, but your experience demonstrates to me that compromised thinking spaces are just that, regardless of what experiences preceded them. Treading water with one’s work or feeling like it’s not the best you can do because of surrounding distraction is hardly in the university’s best interests. How much meaning should the fiscal bottom line have when the ‘loss’ in work quality or productivity on the other side is not measured?

  11. D-R-W says:

    This is a great article. Speaking as someone who is lab based, open plan is still very disappointing. I sit near a water cooler and even with headphones on, it is very common for people to wander over, look at your screen and have a chat while their bottle fills up. Forget writing! It is not so bad on days where you are in and out of the lab, but the constant movement between lab and desk is very distracting to people who are desk bound. It is amazing how much a door deters distraction…

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      That sounds like a nightmare! It’s interesting, actually, how there are people who are always ready to interrupt/chat despite the ‘leave me alone’ signals of headphones, no eye contact, etc. And to disengage or ignore is very difficult with colleagues you see every day. It necessitates establishing hard boundaries around your time and space while located in a social mix, and this is something most people find tricky to do.

  12. Pingback: Open plan, not working | Thesis Talk / Trácht ar Thráchtais

  13. Peter Bentley says:

    I am a bit late on it, but another interesting post. Gt ready for a long comment….

    First up, I have always worked in a shared space of some sort, but some were more difficult than others. As D-R-W explained, being near a kitchen area is much worse, but so too is the sheer number of staff in the space.

    Something which hasn’t been discussed is the stigma of working in an open-plan. It hasn’t been an issue for me with my university employment, but previously I have felt ashamed of my work space, or got the feeling that the choice to put me in an open plan area (and my location within the open plan near the kitchen) was a reflection of my value to the employer. Casuals must feel even worse if they are not even offered work space. I don’t know how to explain it, but there must be some power dynamics involved, such as people in open plan somehow requiring constant observation of their computer screens. Indirectly, I think open plan negatively affects productivity in this way, simply on the basis that it lowers morale and self worth.

    However, where I differ from most of the comments here is that I don’t think open-plan is inherently bad. In my employment for universities, I have never felt the pressure to be present or visible and my work is mostly reviewed on its outcomes. I am probably an exception, but if I feel I can’t get certain work done in my current location, I will do it elsewhere. In an extreme example, I once worked as a contract researcher in a different country to my employer. Obviously, I didn’t have an open-plan desk at my employer (or any desk at all), but I was still highly productive (perhaps more so than even today). I chose to do my work from a library. It gave me a sense of work place, with no interruptions because I knew no one. It was a pain to have to pack up my laptop every time I needed to go to the toilet(!), but my point is that terrible work spaces are not a complete barrier to getting work done if the work itself (or the supervisor) does not require you to be there all the time.

    I have a rather radical perspective, but I think the trend towards contingent academic employment will eventually lead to contingent office spaces, with few university resources and equipment (e.g. designated computers). This is already the case for many casual teachers, but is likely to also extend to researchers who will do their research on their own computers, perhaps with university-licenced software. It is unlikely that these changes will occur within the current workforce (people hate having things taken away from them), it is much more likely to be an outcome of a trend towards sub-contracting research. I don’t necessarily see this in a negative light, the traditional approach to work spaces (e.g. many separate offices, spread over many buildings in generally expensive real estate locations) is completely wasteful. The more someone is paid, the bigger the office and the more likely the lights in the office are off and the door is locked (while the opposite is also true for front-desk workers). It must contribute to the indirect costs of employing academics and the costs of universities providing services to clients (most universities have some extremely high “on-costs” for contracted research, which themselves don’t probably cover the full costs if one includes the indirect public subsidies to universities).

    If universities can move away from permanent work spaces, and academics stopped treating their work spaces as if they were their own personal property, it could lead to substantial reductions in indirect costs, minimising the number of buildings required and other support services. Every week I witness the bizarre bureaucracy associated with building maintenance and support. How many people does it take to change a light bulb, replace a soap dispenser or toilet roll, check a fire extinguisher or smoke alarm, cut the leaves in the courtyard, check the building alarm, empty the rubbish bins, etc.?

    When I work from home or as a contractor and I have a problem, I just fix it. In universities, I get reprimanded for fixing things as it is not my job and I am stepping on someone’s toes. Although I am not an advocate of open-plan, I would be much happier to have a job, work mostly remotely (or in an outer suburb workplace) and pocket the savings.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Thanks for this great comment, Peter! It should’ve been a stand-alone blogpost. Was v. interested to hear your POV re resourcing and what you think future trends might be in this area. I think that if workplaces support their workers to do their work from home or other remote locations, rather than take little interest in the alternative spaces that their workers may need/want from the ‘lean’ new spaces that provide a good bottom line, it makes a difference. As it is, though, it seems like there’s a real ‘suck it up’ attitude to any frustrations/unhappiness re reduced productivity or simply a less satisfying work life. Particularly to have researchers/academics working at their best, doesn’t it also pay to keep them happy in their jobs?

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