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By Nicole Spector

Once I switched from full-time employment to full-time freelance (aka, being self-employed and working from home), there were a lot of things I came to miss about office life, such as the set schedule and being around co-workers. One aspect I’ve never been remotely nostalgic about was the open office setting, which the last company I worked for transitioned to shortly before I left.

Cubicles aren’t great (and I don’t miss those, either), but at least they afforded me a sense of privacy and clear boundaries. Much of my job as an editor required quiet time to read, write and call sources and little of this work could get done comfortably in an environment stripped of privacy and gushing with noise. I was also constantly distracted by the conversations around me. It was tough to book a conference room because editorial was competing with every other department whose employees were just as eagerly seeking peace. My colleagues and I mostly used email and online chatting to communicate so that we wouldn’t have to shout.

Noise pollution is real, and it’s impacting employees' lives

These problems seem to come with the territory of open office life. The Harvard Business School recently published studies showing that in open offices, employees have significantly less face-to-face interaction (by about 70 percent) than they do when they have spatial boundaries, while electronic communications surge by as much as 50 percent. A separate study by Oxford Economics concluded that noise pollution in open offices has reached “epidemic levels,” with 63 percent of employees stating that they lack quiet space for work, which in turn has a “negative effect on their productivity, satisfaction and well-being”.

Studies show that in open offices, employees have significantly less face-to-face interaction than they do when they have spatial boundaries.

These findings are troubling, particularly since the open office plan is becoming increasingly common, fueled not only by cost-efficiency, but by the idea that being in a boundless space nurtures a collaborative spirit, ultimately enabling you and your teammates to work more fluidly together — resulting in sort of the opposite effect of cubicles.

Open office plans are aimed to bring us together

“We actually saw the rise of the cubicle in the 1960s as a means of trying to inject personal identity and private space into the one-size-fits-all open office,” says Jonathan Webb, VP of workplace strategy at KI. “Over the course of time, people began to associate cubicles with a lack of individuality, which is part of the reason we see a rise of open offices today, [which were] also popularized by tech giants like Facebook, Microsoft and Google seeking to bolster collaboration. Firms in other industries have taken note of tech companies' rapid growth and popular work cultures, so CEOs across the board have opted for open office plans. They see the innovation coming out of firms in Silicon Valley and think that open offices might be a part of fostering that success.”

Flexibility is paramount

It’s a great idea, but one that, in practice, evidently isn’t working for everyone. This could come down to execution. CEOs need to take the time (and possibly, the money) to implement open office plans that are designed with workers’ various needs in mind. Webb suggests they these four main work styles: “focus, interaction, regenerative and ideation.”

“In practice, most workers transition between all of these work styles at different points in their work day or week, [and] all of these require different workspaces,” says Webb. “For workers who prefer more privacy or who seek an area to focus on individual work, walled-in spaces or cubicles can be useful. Height-adjustable screens allow workers to create both shared and private spaces and switch between them with a quick push or pull. They help balance offices with open floor plans for when employees want to take a private phone call or tune out possible distractions. Employers can also create a sense of openness while maintaining privacy through movable walls and glass walls.”

Webb adds that CEOs often get it wrong by “going too far to one end of the spectrum with the open office. Workplaces can't be one-size-fits-all, whether that's a completely open office or a cubicle farm.”

Workplaces can't be one-size-fits-all, whether that's a completely open office or a cubicle farm.

The workplace needs to be something in-between and then some, with a commitment to balance.

“Until recently, everyone thought they wanted to move to completely open office environments,” says Christopher K. M. Leach, president of Contract Furnishings in Denver. “I think we're now seeing the pendulum swing back to the middle, where we’ll find some balance between providing quiet spaces for those who need privacy, while still keeping collaborative places for more social workers to gather.”

Changing the space could help CEOs retain talent

Employees affected by noise pollution in office environments are more likely to say they may leave their job in the next six months.

Rearranging or remodeling an office space to better accommodate employees spatial preferences may sound like an unwieldy investment, but in a tight labor market, companies should consider it. Oxford Economic’s report also found that employees affected by noise pollution in office environments are more likely to say they may leave their job in the next six months.

Additionally, the solutions don’t have to include tearing down (or putting up) walls. There are a number of individual workstation screens and portable cubicles (for lack of a less dreadful sounding term) available for purchase. ROOM is a company that makes soundproof phone booths made of recycled plastic bottles, an innovation that co-founder Morten Meisner-Jensen says was inspired by a rising need among managers to provide personal space to workers in open office environments.

“It's a problem for the little startup as well as for some of the largest companies in the world,” Meisner-Jensen tells NBC News Better.

How to improve your open office environment

In my experience with an open office, the chances of any kind of office redesign were low, to say the least. I once complained about the chronic noise (and the fact that I was literally rubbing elbows with the person beside me, who worked in another department) to my manager, but he simply shrugged at his apparent helplessness in the matter. Others were also unhappy, but this was a company of some 400 people who were working crazy hours. Architectural adjustments just weren’t on the table at the time.

What can you do when you’ve got no choice but to work in this noisy, chaotic environment?

Here’s what Jamie Gruman, Ph.D., a psychologist and a professor of organizational behavior at the College of Business and Economics at the University of Guelph suggests:

  • Take a break. “Research shows that the noise associated with open offices can be stressful, [so] you should consider periodically leaving the office during regularly scheduled breaks to escape the stress and let your physiological systems return to baseline levels. Short breaks from an open office, such as getting outside for a few minutes to read a magazine or relax in a park, can give you a boost and make you better at your tasks when you get back to work.”
  • Get some alone time. “Given that the need for privacy and solitude is breached in an open office, make an effort to recapture these. Go for a walk alone on your lunch break. If there are rooms available for meetings or for when you need to concentrate, reserve them for getting some work done. If there are quiet corners in which you can work, use them. If working from home is an option, exploit it.”
  • Keep a pair of headphones at your desk. “Use headphones to either play music or cancel out ambient noise.” (If you like working with music, you may want to create a positivity soundtrack.)
  • Put in some face time. “Given that open offices have been shown to compromise performance because they stimulate more electronically-mediated communication, make sure that key information you send to team members is understood properly. Spend enough time face-to-face to get work done right. The last thing you want to do is spend more time in the open office fixing problems that arose due to miscommunication.”


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