Working in an open-plan office could make you ill

A scientist in Australia recently completed a worldwide inspection of employees who work in open-plan offices and found that offices without many walls have a negative impact that includes higher levels of stress, high blood pressure, and high staff turnover. It even leads to more in-fighting among employees.

I knew it. I could have told you this was true. Working in an office without many walls -- an "open-plan" office consisting mostly of common space shared by lots of people -- can make you sick."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," said the researcher from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovations. The study was published in the Asia-Pacific Journal of Health Management.

There's also the simple matter of germs that are more easily spread in close quarters. This is something that all of us have already seen at work. Someone comes to work with a cold, and pretty soon half the office has it.

Too bad nearly every office of size, particularly corporate ones, work on the open plan. Ever since the dawn of white collar life, in fact, the right to proper walls has only afforded to the upper echelon of management. Newbies, secretaries, clerks, and phone operators sit in the bullpen.

Partitions are cheaper than walls, and cramming lots of people into cubes saves on space, so it's said that building on the open plan can bring businesses a 20% savings up front. But when you do the math on the cost of accumulating absenteeism, poor motivation, bad productivity, and general job dissatisfaction, that 20% may actually be an illusion. Having an office full of sick or sour workers can cost businesses their futures.

Every time I have worked in a wide-open space, I've hated it. The combined energy of all those people just shorts out my concentration. There's something animal about needing a wall or two around you if you're going to put your mind to a narrow task. Maybe because cavemen needed to feel a little secure about being able to see attacks coming. That's me in an office: an exposed caveman.

It's unlikely that corporations will change their office structures anytime soon, though. The people who construct offices see different balance sheets from those who deal with the workers who suffer in them. As long as companies don't mind burning through workers, the cost savings are in their favor. But anyone who earns their living in a cube should be reassured that their dread over going to work isn't a personal failing. As you always knew, it's your boss' fault.

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