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Open Offices Can Cause Anxiety - What Can Be Done?

by Keith Fentress / January 25, 2018

The open office has been heralded as a modern layout that promotes collaboration, innovation, and a more flexible workplace. But is there a downside? The answer is yes—open offices can also promote anxiety.

A friend recently transitioned to an open office from a traditional, private office setting. The space in her office is attractive and highly innovative. It has a mix of assigned and unassigned workstations, varying-sized conference rooms, getaway booths for privacy, and ample technology that enhances the experience. The space is designed to allow personnel from different departments to intermix and to provide a balance of collaborative and focused spaces.

To aid the transition, the office provided a policy manual and demonstration area for hands-on experience with the furniture and technology. Employees were also trained on the technology and working in an open office. While my friend has sensed excitement about the new, innovative, and attractive space, she also reported some interesting observations now that everyone is settled in:

  • Her coworkers tend to come into the office less and prefer to work from home
  • Productivity is down, and her team as a whole is missing more deadlines
  • It is hard for her to concentrate, given interruptions from coworkers and the distractions of noise and movement
  • Her office has a policy that you can only reserve a workstation a week in advance, and you can only sit in the same workstation for a few days in a row – this policy has made it more difficult for her team to coordinate on work efforts
  • Privacy is at a premium, and the small rooms used for focused work (i.e., getaway booths) are often occupied – especially the booths located in a more remote corner of the office
  • The getaway booths have glass walls (she calls them “fishbowls”) and are distracting to work in as office workers and visitors walk by in very close proximity

During our conversation, she said, “I would like to return to the days of having a private office where I can shut out the world and just focus on my work without having to worry about where I’m sitting, who I’m sitting near, clean desk policies, or reserving quiet rooms. I can’t just come to work and work.”

It made me sad to hear that my friend's transition to an open office has been such an anxiety-provoking experience. Organizations must do more to tap into their employees’ fears and anxieties by developing strategies that help mitigate open-office anxiety. In doing so, the many benefits of the open office can be more fully realized without sacrificing employee happiness or causing employees to experience added stress.

What Can Cause Anxiety in Open Offices?

The causes of anxiety in the open office environment have been well studied and documented. A summary of the causes can be found in this 2016 article, and include:

  • Too Much Noise – a leading open office complaint that undermines concentration
  • Too Many Interruptions – disrupts productivity by interrupting workflow and causes inefficiency due to the time it takes to regain concentration and momentum
  • Lack of Environmental Control - employees cannot often control their environment, including temperature, lighting, and the personalization of workstations
  • Lack of Privacy - the lack of visual and sound privacy creates distractions and undermines job satisfaction

For Every Action, There Is a Reaction

The causes of anxiety in an open office environment are natural, and steps should be taken to mitigate stress. But for every cause of anxiety, there is a positive benefit gained from working in open office space.

Allowing employees to intermix with personnel from other departments strikes up conversations and leads to connections that would likely have happened outside of a private office setting. My friend has experienced this in her office space and has now formed solid working relationships and new friendships with others. Yes, having an open area with many people will always be noisier than a private office. However, private offices do not promote integrating people and ideas like open offices do. Likewise, interruptions are a concern in open offices, but they spur the intermix of people and ideas (though there can be too much of a good thing). The open office is designed specifically for this mix.

Concerning the lack of privacy, on the flip side, this means that people are accessible. In open offices, supervisors and managers are often working alongside employees. This likely means that the managers/supervisors are much more aware of what is happening and more accessible for conversations and guidance. In the open office, you want people to be able to watch, listen, and learn – this is part of the collaborative experience. Having less privacy is a trade-off.

Too many people are trying to compare the open office to the benefits of a private office, but that comparison is unfair. The spaces are designed for different purposes. It’s like comparing a movie theater to a carnival. Both are designed for entertainment, but the movie theater is designed to focus your attention on a surface, and a carnival is intended to be more social and to provide participants with choices of activities. One would not go to a carnival and expect a movie theater experience. The same expectation should be valid for private offices versus open offices.

Open offices originated in high-tech companies focused on innovation and decentralized organizational structures. They fit the culture of these organizations well. The difficulty comes in applying the open office environment to organizations with very different cultures while expecting the same innovative results. There are degrees of “openness” in planning any open office environment. The key is to match the mix of spaces with the work activities and culture of the organization.

Reducing Anxiety in Open Offices

Given that open offices can cause employee anxiety, here are some recommendations to reduce stress.

Allow Teleworking

A mix of working in the office and teleworking may be the ideal solution. My friend strategically plans her week to accomplish focused work at home and more collaborative work in the office. This is sage advice. Today’s private office has moved to the house. The office has become a collaboration and conferencing space in many respects. Also, the more relaxed atmosphere at home can balance the more stressful office environment. Essentially, you can work at home to “recharge your batteries,” which can help reduce your overall work stress.

Sound Masking

Noise in the open office is the most significant complaint. Organizations can dampen some of the noise through white noise systems. These systems by no means cover up the noise of an adjacent coworker but can help reduce the overall office noise to a less distracting level.

Do Not Disturb Indicators

Another frequent complaint is interruptions from coworkers. Such disruption can be reduced through a visual cue that lets people know when you are available or do not wish to be disturbed. I have seen simplistic cues using color chip clips placed on low partitions. Red clips mean “do not disturb,” yellow implies that you’re open to interruption but prefer to be left alone, and green indicates you are available for collaboration. You can also find small desk-top flags that show coworkers you are busy. A more visual and high-tech solution that uses lights can be found here to show when a worker is busy.

Allow Freedom of Choice

Lack of control leads to a feeling of helplessness and frustration. On the other hand, a sense of control improves morale and promotes our ability to be productive. So, why not allow employees to control some aspects of their environment?

Making the temperature comfortable for everyone in an open office setting is impossible. There are many offices with thermostat wars and even some that provide “dummy thermostats” that give employees the illusion of temperature control.

Beyond the thermostat, there are other office areas where employees can have choices and control—for example, providing employees with easily adjustable, comfortable chairs and desks that convert from sitting to standing.

Additionally, many open offices require a clean desk policy, and employees are encouraged to personalize their workstations. An alternative suggestion is to have a large activity board at the office for workers to pin up family photographs, vacation pictures, and other appropriate personal material. Such a board would benefit from being near the office water cooler or coffee break area, allowing employees to express their personal lives in a community-oriented and interactive fashion.

Privy to Privacy

Another concern in the open office is the lack of privacy. A potential solution would be to place more private workstations in tucked-away nooks and crannies throughout the office. I have seen workstations placed under stairways and awkwardly configured spaces that cannot be effectively used for other purposes. Another solution is to provide small conference rooms that are not entirely glass-enclosed so that employees can escape audio and visual distractions.

Want more innovative solutions? Check out this BBC article on innovative office designs, such as employee bubbles and partially enclosed “air desks.”

Open Offices are Here to Stay

Open offices now represent the majority of office workspaces, with 70% of offices in the U.S. adopting an open office layout. The benefits of coworker camaraderie, collaboration, and integration can sometimes be overwhelming to those who desire a quiet work setting. Given that open office anxiety is real, I recommend mitigating the complaints about open offices by allowing teleworking, reducing noise, promoting do-not-disturb policies, enabling employees to change aspects of the office, and providing ample areas that offer audio and visual privacy. These changes will go a long way toward reducing anxiety and promoting a happier, thriving workforce.

Tags: Open Office Design

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Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress

Keith Fentress is the founder and president of Fentress Incorporated. He has an extensive history of consulting to real property organizations. His skills include change management, program evaluation, and business process improvement. He enjoys adventure travel and outdoor pursuits like backpacking, canoeing, and snorkeling.