Are open offices bad for health?

One of our subscribers – Venkatesh Krishnamurthy – wrote and forwarded this article.  I thought it was worth publishing even though it is not directly related to Project Management.

Recently this article made a lot of Agilists worry across the globe. Reason, the article questions the basic premise of what Agilists believe that “open-plan” offices are good in many ways including the health,productivity, etc.

The core of the article seems to be the following paragraphs

“In 90 percent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.

“The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.”

Even though the research doesn’t talk about the details about the project team, it is my personal experience that teams working on Agile projects over a period of time gel well and their bonding power and open communication can easily solve any issues related to open office space.

I have worked in open plan office settings too, and in fact in the beginning, I had hard time concentrating on work due to the noise level.  One of the reasons for increase in noise level is the constant ringing of mobile phones. A few years ago, we had this mobile revolution in India, every one wanted to get this mobile handset and try a different ring tone. Many of the team members wanted to show their newly downloaded ring tone to their coworkers. This used to really cause a lot of discomfort to many in the team. Obviously such distraction causes stress and loss of productivity to some members of the team.

My personal view about possible solutions for situations like above would be to setup some kind of “team rules” or “open office rules”. These rules could be created by brainstorming with all the team members and should be always kept open for modifications. One could include points like,

  • When and how to use mobile phones,
  • appropriate noise level while talking to others,
  • listening to music,
  • Decorating the personal area appropriately.
  • Handling health issues

If anybody is found to break the above rules, the team could throw Paper balls at them, boo at them or put a joker cap on their head, etc to make them conscious of their mistakes.

Another key issue being referred in the article being “privacy issues”.  I understand that everyone wants to relax a bit, and each employee has their own way of beating stress. Some may want to go to cafeteria, some might like to chat with colleagues, some might want to read online news paper, might want to check personal emails or check the cricket scores. Even though spending the office bandwidth, customer billable hours on “non-work” related activities should be avoided, being pragmatic on this issue, I suggest that some rules could be created with the team to handle privacy issues. Rules could be like “allowable” time to check personal emails/news papers,etc between 4 PM to 4.30 PM everyday.

My personal opinion is that, allowing the team to have their private time like the one I have mentioned above, actually would reduce stress.

Another important point to remember is, trying to optimize the project teams to improve productivity of the individuals would lead to local sub-optimization, which is not considered good for the value flow within the team.


2 Responses to “Are open offices bad for health?”

  1. Anderson110 says:

    The optimism bias of goal setters applies to difficulty as well as time. Not only does everything take longer than we think it will, it requires more hard work. We all confuse two terms that appear to be synonymous but are actually quite different: simple and easy. We want to believe that once we understand a simple concept, it will be easy to execute a plan and achieve results.



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  2. I also find that an open office helps to boost team cohesion, and make sure that everybody is in the know.

    people can always retreat the conference rooms for a little while if they need privacy.

    Some simple rules can help reduce stress, great post.

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