Open-plan, hot-desking… the fast-track to poor wellbeing & performance

Open-plan, hot-desking… the fast-track to poor wellbeing & performance

by | Apr 11, 2019 | Working | 0 comments

Remember the days of heading into work, arriving at your desk, and maybe even your own office, and finding it just as you left it?

Same place, same chair, same plant, same view…

Heaven, wasn’t it?

(This may not apply If you are under 40 or not working in an office environment – but use your imagination!)

Here’s the thing…

I’ve been visiting the offices of hundreds of organisations for 30 years, and have a strong point of view about open-plan and hot-desking that I’d like to get off my chest:

Simply, these are bad for your health, your wellbeing and your performance and it’s about time organisations read the research before embarking on another remodelling of the office space.

That’s exactly what I’ve been doing and have got the headlines to share here to hopefully provoke some re-thinking about how to organise the workspace to promote wellbeing and performance.

 

Why do they do it?

Of course, there have to be some potential benefits for open-plan office space and for the concept of hot-desking (the greater evil of the two in my book), otherwise we wouldn’t find ourselves working in them.

Here are the claims I can find in support of these set-ups:

 

Flexible and efficient use of space. You can cram more people into open-plan than in traditional offices, even if these hold a few people each. Re-allocating space from offices allows for more flexibility and easier and cheaper remodelling and reorganising as time moves on.

Open-plan floors result in less cost for rental space, and even better when you don’t have to provide everyone with a permanent desk (and everything that goes with it)!

 

Enhanced collaboration. Casual contact is promoted by shorter distances – that’s the theory. Open-plan supports quick consultation instead of formal meetings. The spaces can be organised to bring different working groups closer together for faster co-work and communication and to foster team spirit.

Research done at Ford on web developers in 2000 did find that teams brought together in a coworking space for short term projects did enjoy the easy access to each other and had more productive meetings (but it was temporary).

 

Broader and changing connections across teams from hot-desking – i.e. moving desks each day based on availability. The notion is that if employees are not assigned to a certain area, they will choose or end up in different spaces and inevitably be co-located with a wider range of co-workers, thereby fostering new connections.

 

Improvements in morale. Open-plan working space might convey a sense of connection and openness not available in the closed offices of the past. If leaders are ‘out there’ too, it could also be seen as debunking status symbols like the ‘corner office’.

 

Attractive and varied working spaces. It has to be said that there are some funky and vibrant new working environments in the organisations that have invested in high-class refits of their working spaces. Sit-stand desks (a favourite of mine), quiet areas, comfy chairs, bean bags, semi-private rooms (but without doors), café style ‘pods’ and so on. Some even have indoor gardens ?

 

Clear desk policies and paperless working practices. These can be driven through faster by removing desk and storage space from individuals. No desk, nowhere to stash any stuff – and you can’t leave anything in a shared space.

 

And what’s really happening?

My perspective on this thorny topic is based on four things: personal observation; feedback from the people working in these environments; my instincts based on my experience and understanding of human psychology; and, oh yes, the research evidence.

Here are the counter-claims on why open-plan and hot-desking is bad for wellbeing, performance and morale:

 

NOISE! Repeated research has shown noise to be one of the biggest problems in open offices, especially ringing phones and loud conversations. Noise is a definite stressor in the workplace and has been related to lower job satisfaction.

Research at the University of Sydney found that 50-60% of people with either a completely open office floorplan or low-walled cubicles are dissatisfied with their sound privacy. A study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 different US office buildings found that the penalties of increased noise and decreased privacy in open-plan lay-outs significantly out-weighed any benefit to be had from ‘ease of interaction’.

 

Distractions and interruptions. Unwanted interruptions are very costly in terms of productivity, especially when the work demands high levels of concentration. Small distractions can cause us to lose focus for up to 20 minutes. Multiply that by the number of distractions in a day, and the impact becomes huge.

We hear about this issue all the time in the GLWS work we undertake – 34% of leaders report that challenges in concentrating at work are seriously impacting their wellbeing and performance.

 

Personal space: There are two parts to this:

  1. The same US study as above found that being forced into closer proximity to other people was a clear negative feature of open-plan work. Employees prefer more ‘personal space’ between themselves and others.
  2. The practice of hot-desking means there is nothing ‘personal’ about your workspace… no photos, no kids’ drawings, not even a pencil holder – that makes it ‘yours’. I find this de-personalisation or sterilisation of the working environment to be de-humanising and it can suggest that organisations sees their employees as ‘worker bees’… buzzing away in the hive with no need for a space to call their own.

 

Belonging. Extending this thought a little further, as a result of repeated interactions in specific settings, humans do develop attachment to a place. They are linked to their place of work by familiarity and by the sense of identity it provides. An office refit and reorganisation breaks these emotional connections – and the ensuing disorientation, nostalgia, and alienation may undermine employees’ sense of belonging and mental health in general.

If the ‘new order’ involves hot-desking, and so no opportunity to re-establish an attachment, then this can be very destabilising for some people. It probably also explains why, in many cases, ‘hot-desking’ simply results in individuals and teams laying claim to particular areas and holding on to them, despite what the policy might say!

 

Environmental conditions. In open-plan settings, individuals have very little control over lighting and temperature in their workspace, and if they are hot-desking, they can’t even have a fan of their own. There has been some recent media coverage of the need for employers to make accommodations for women experiencing menopause – an essential component of that would be provision of a fan!

 

Visual privacy is another problem that pops up in open-plan settings. You are ‘on show’ – people may be looking at you or in your direction all day long. Having cubicle walls can help with this but interestingly tend to exacerbate the issues related to noise stress – you can’t see the noise source, making this more unpredictable and therefore more stressful.

 

Privacy of conversations. It is more challenging to have a truly private conversation when there are no office walls. Of course most offices have quiet rooms available, but they can be booked out and there is the obvious downside of it being ‘noted’ by others that you are taking yourself off to an office to speak to a co-worker or direct report… that can fuel the rumour mill.

 

Collaboration. One of the main stated goals for moving to open-plan. But the problem is that research isn’t backing this up. Take one study done by Harvard where employees’ interactions were monitored before and after the move from a cubicle-based lay out to full open-plan. The results were stark: after the shift to an open-plan office space, the participants spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, while their use of email and instant messenger shot up by 67% and 75% respectively.

This is echoed by a personal anecdote from a senior leader in a professional services firm who told me “with hot-desking, I can’t easily find my colleagues to have a quick word and so I end up emailing a lot more than I used to when I knew where to find them”.

And, if you have walked through an open-plan office lately, you will have seen a fair proportion of people wearing noise cancelling headphones in a desperate bid to block out the noise and get on with some work. Don’t tell me that this is helping to foster collaboration!

 

Health. The estimate is that we are twice as likely to get sick in open working spaces. It’s the spread of germs on the shared desks and other equipment as well as proximity to blame here (and maybe a touch of people coming into work sick because of the higher visibility of them being absent?).

And, if you are moving to a new space each day, what about the ergonomic seating arrangements? Maybe you can use a sit-stand desk, but what about a chair and desk specifically set to your requirements that doesn’t get adjusted by others? What if you need a foot rest or a wrist support in front of your keyboard?

 

Cognitive performance. Concentration is required to do our best work on many tasks. So is memory, which makes the finding that we retain more information when we sit in one spot especially challenging for the hot-desking advocates. Makes sense if you reflect on what you do when you have forgotten some detail – you tend to picture yourself in the situation where you first heard it.

 

All in all, I’d say the evidence is stacked against the value of working in these open, shared workspaces.

And just in case you think this is just the musings of a menopausal Gen X privacy nut who lives in the country and hates too much noise (I’ll own it!), then you should take a look at the study by Oxford Economics (reference below) which showed that what Millennials want most is ‘less noise in the workplace’ and ‘the ability to focus and work without interruptions.’ Far from not caring where they sit’ Millennials are ‘more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and in general are more annoyed by ambient noises in the office.’

What is absolutely clear from the research I have read on this is that most employees do not favour open-plan working or hot-desking. It negatively impacts their satisfaction with work, their morale, their wellbeing and their performance.

Sure, the future of work is going to be radically different from our experience of today, and when it comes, we may not have to worry about ‘office space’. But until that time, can the leaders of organisations and their facilities managers please take a broader view and think more deeply about how to get the best from their most precious resource?

 

References:

  1. Kim, J., & de Dear, R. (2013). Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology
  2. Kaarlela-Tuomaala et al (2009) Effects of acoustic environment on work in private office rooms and open-plan offices – longitudinal study during relocation. Ergonomics Vol 52(11):1423-44
  3. https://www.inc.com/geoffrey-james/its-official-open-plan-offices-are-now-dumbest-management-fad-of-all-time.html
  4. http://www.bbc.com/capital/story/20170105-open-offices-are-damaging-our-memories
  5. When the walls come down. How smart companies are rewriting the rules of the open workplace. Oxford Economics

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