The office: I know what you did last weekend

I know you’re having trouble with your partner. I know you took your cat to the vet last week. I know you swear black and blue immediately after hanging up from a phone conversation with your boss. I know all these things, and so much more, because we work in an open-plan office.

open planBy Asher Goldman

Open-plan offices, while undoubtedly helping to foster collaboration amongst staff, have the not-insignificant drawback of removing the last vestige of privacy from your relationship with your co-workers.

Do we really want to know every last detail about our workmates lives? Or to have them know ours? For many of us, our positive relationships with our office buddies are built on knowing where the boundaries are between our work-friendships and our personal lives.

The open-plan office has increased in use, if not in popularity, steadily since the invention of the cubicle in the 1960s. Robert Propst, a designer who came up with the cubicle concept, thought his work would help “knowledge-workers” to control their professional destinies. Perhaps he should have included that all-purpose disclaimer: results may vary.

One result of open-plan working was noted in the study Office Design's Impact on Sick Leave Rates, published in the journal Ergonomics, which found that workers in shared spaces (4 – 9 people per room) and open spaces (24 or more per room) were more likely to take sick leave than those who have their own offices.

Despite this, open-plan working is on the rise, with an International Facility Management Association survey in 2010 reporting that 68 percent of all offices are now open plan. In New Zealand, most public servants work in open-plan offices, including some where members of the public are mixed in with workers, such as Work and Income offices. The PSA also uses open-plan formats in most of our offices nationwide.

There are some jobs where open-plan working makes perfect sense – where a group of people is collaborating on a shared project, where ideas need to be bounced off each other and speed is of the essence. Likewise, open-plan offices are endlessly configurable. This means that, without significant additional cost, spaces and groups can be moved around to suit the type of work going on at any given time.

Overall though, most research on open-plan working says it is a sap on productivity, motivation and morale. A 2013 study in the Journal of Environmental Psychology concluded that the “benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration”.

Why then, if the research is so conclusive, are open-plan workplaces still becoming more common? Cost savings play a big part – modular designs are easy and cheap to replicate and expand, and less walls mean financial savings too. The generation of people now coming into managerial roles has grown up with open-plan, often it is all they’ve ever known.

Sadly for many, it seems that open-plan working is here to stay – indeed, the future seems to be mixing open-plan and hot desking to create a sterile workplace where anyone can sit anywhere, nobody has a desk and everything is interchangeable.

Still, it isn’t all bad. Even the increased sick leave rates of open-plan working have a flipside – at least when you’re in an open-plan environment, you can see at a glance exactly who is at work and who is at home, having caught the latest round of the office cold.


This article is from the August 2014 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.