Why open plan offices can lead to closed minds and reduced performance

Today’s offices are all about open plan. The theory goes that such spaces serve to promote an atmosphere of creativity and collaboration.

But this simplistic overview actually underlines the problem with open-plan design – a problem that is only now beginning to be taken seriously. 

This kind of space makes the very basic assumption that all employees are the same. It assumes that everyone will respond well to the environment and will embrace the culture of the collective to the benefit of both employee wellbeing and company performance. 

In fact, this is simply not true. Several factors combine to negate this notion of a one-size-fits-all workspace. 

How noise levels impact performance

Take the issue of noise as an example. An open workspace is vulnerable to issues of excessive noise and, paradoxically, over-quietness. Such conditions can cause employees to become over-stimulated, irritated and tired. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that workers in open plan offices are said to take 70% more sick days than home workers, equating to a financial cost to European businesses of £30 billion.

Some constant noise of certain lower frequencies can be fine – and even useful. However, the open office creates a cacophony of varying noise which the brain generally struggles with. This affects a person’s ability to focus and, consequently, productivity falls.

An overly quiet workspace also leads to problems for people and organisations. The lack of a base of ‘comfortable’ noise in which to talk and move around means that some people become uncomfortably self-conscious about the noise they make.

It also means that any louder noises seem amplified. Again, this has an impact on concentration and productivity. Depending on the task and the person it can take an average of 5-15 minutes to reset the concentration clock and return to full operation.

Accommodating different brains

It is not simply a matter of acoustics. Everybody is to some extent differently abled – ways of thinking and operating differ from one person to the next. This ‘neuro-diversity’ cannot be shoehorned into one type of workspace. Indeed, to do so is a recipe for problems which can result in higher-levels of absenteeism and, in the worst cases, burn-out.

Different types of brains (e.g. introvert vs extrovert, neuro-diverse, autistic), different types of tasks (e.g. programming vs brainstorming), and different times of day (mid-morning vs immediately after lunch vs just before home time) form a three-dimensional matrix of conditions, and therefore needs, from a workspace.

The most forward-thinking organisations are now recognising and accommodating neurodiversity.  Not only are they adjusting their recruitment policies and HR processes, they are also re-evaluating the workspace itself.

Decision-makers have begun to think more deeply about the benefits of leveraging the talents of all employees through greater sensitivity to individuals.

Some of the world’s most recognisable brands are now actively seeking neuro-diverse talent in the knowledge that the potential returns from such employees can be great.

How to design for all

Creating a positive workplace for every employee does not necessitate a complete design overhaul. Spending some time to investigate the following topics will reveal ideas and solutions that can be implemented to the benefit of all:

  • White noise – helps to create a base comfortable noise level into which people feel more open to be themselves. Also helps to mask varying noises.
  • Acoustic panelling – (Buy acoustic panels, wall panels, ceiling panels, room dividers) used not just make sound reverb in a space less, but also to sub-divide areas with differing functions and noise levels (eg finance team vs sales team / programmers vs dining area).
  • Withdrawal spaces – places close to work desks which people can hop casually into for a respite or a conversation. Ideally, these should provide separation without totally isolating users from the workspace.
  • Mindful room – an isolated, quiet private space where people can go to really detox and recharge. Find a way to show when its in use to minimise interruption and provide guidelines for usage.
  • Biophilic elements – the addition of green natural elements – even fake plants or simply the colour green – is proven to make brains happier. Plants also have a valuable acoustic effect, breaking up sounds.
  • Good communication and inclusivity – explore the issue in an open and collaborative manner, enabling people to be part of – and own – the solutions. 

There is a huge pool of untapped neuro-diverse employee talent out there, and businesses of every size are starting to understand the value of embracing individuality.

Change needn’t be dramatic or expensive. It takes businesses thinking differently – and adapting accordingly – to accommodate workers who think differently. By understanding individuals, organisations can perform better as a whole.

Nook helps to bring new ways of working and neuro-inclusivity to today’s offices.