Open plan offices are the norm — but are they any good? Do people like working in them or are most companies inadvertently reducing the productivity and effectiveness of their more introverted employees? Recent studies provide telling answers to these questions while office suppliers are offering new alternatives, from semi-private screened off booths to private glass pods, to house the more introvert half of the workforce.
OPP, the business psychologists recently produced a study called Type and Work Environment which looked at how people with different personalities felt about the places in which they work. Chief among these is that, although most people work in open plan constructs, they would not choose them. Those who worked in smaller shared offices were more satisfied with their jobs and there were significant differences in workplace preferences between introverts and extroverts.
The modern open plan office is thought to have originated in Germany in the 1950s, with the idea of the Bürolandschaft (office landscape). This built on the architectural grids of desks beloved of Frank Lloyd Wright but used more natural, clustered layouts. However, after half a century of widespread acceptance that open plan is an inevitable end point in office evolution, some are starting to question whether it really is the best way to organise staff.
One of the problems with open plan environments is that they tend to suit extroverts who are also usually more vocal about their preferences, says John Hackston, OPP’s head of research and development. So when staff are asked whether they like their office, it is the extroverts who tend to respond, fuelling an assumption that the majority of staff are broadly happy. Mr Hackston adds that “most leadership teams are made up of extroverts so they’re happy in open plan offices too”.
If, however, you look at what introverts like, their preferences are for private and home offices. In her 2012 Ted talk, Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking said: “Our most important institutions, our schools and our workplaces . . . are designed mostly for extroverts and for extroverts’ need for lots of stimulation.” So, while extroverts are having a fine time of it, the poor introverts suffer in silence and their productivity declines.
What is more, surveys suggest introverts make up roughly half the population.
The US office furniture company Steelcase has addressed the issue with a range of units called Susan Cain Quiet Spaces. Launched last year, these nooks, some made with frosted glass, provide respite from a workplace people can find overstimulating, it says.
“Making these spaces available to introverts signals that the organisation understands and respects their need to work differently.”
However, it is both difficult and expensive to redesign entire offices and open plan offices are pretty economical with space. Thus, personality-adapted offices tend to be only on the agendas of companies that have money to burn.
Bob Seddon of the British Institute of Facilities Management says: “It’s a bit like eating sustainable food. Facilities managers see it as nice to have, but an extra cost without provable benefits.”
Our most important institutions are designed mostly for extroverts.
A kind of halfway house, says Jonathan Hindle, Emea group managing director at the office furniture company KI, is to provide staff with an variety of spaces. So, while you may not be able to give introverts their own pods, you can at least give them an “enriched” environment that allows them some choice over their space. In particular, he says, “If you look at meeting areas, having your back to open space can be quite difficult. But small booths for three to four people work very well and are often preferred to formal meeting rooms.”
The other thing that makes most staff happier is to allow people to personalise their work areas, regardless of office type. Putting objects on a desk demarcates “your” space to some extent.
But how do you personalise if the entire company is hot-desking — and how do you personalise it if the company has a clear-desks policy? The OPP report notes that staff tend to dislike hot-desking and desk sharing, while other studies show a link between personalisation and wellbeing.
“Hot-desking takes away a sense of your own space and security and contributes to feeling like a cog in a machine,” says psychologist Donna Dawson. It is a sad reflection on the modern workplace that even the tiniest amount of personalisation can improve wellbeing. “Some companies provide trays that allow you to quickly personalise a hot desk,” says Jonny Gifford of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.
“It makes a world of difference.”