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Open Plan Offices: time for a re-think?
March 8, 2016

Open Plan office
The open-plan office – it’s been the source of much debate over the years. Inspired by the German workspaces in the 1950s, ‘open-plan’ became a buzz-word in the working world, thought to inspire collaboration, teamwork and increase efficiency. But where does it sit in today’s world of flexible working?

To understand this debate fully, we need to take a closer look at the two main types of character that exist in the workplace: the introvert and the extrovert. When we refer to these personality types, we’re not talking about how outgoing or shy they are – you could be the most sociable person in the office and still be an introvert.

These classifications relate to the way in you draw your energy. Extroverts, by nature, typically feel most energised and do their best work when they are surrounded by others. They prefer more stimulating environments which give them the option to see and interact with people.

Introverts, by contrast, draw their energy and perform best when they are in quiet spaces with a small number of people, if not alone. They may feel overwhelmed by too much noise and stimulation, seeking the solace of an office or private workspace to allow them to fully concentrate on the task at hand.

When you apply these personality traits to the office, it’s clear to see that the open-plan design favours the extrovert. Leading introvert, Susan Cain, goes as far as to ask “What kind of sadist concocted the open-plan office layout?” The almost-constant distraction of others’ conversations (known as ‘the irrelevant speech effect’) has been shown to have a somewhat negative effect on productivity. But is it that clear-cut?

Researcher and psychologist, Beatriz Arantes, argues that being distracted in the office is rooted in evolution: “From a survival point of view, it was important to be attentive to your environment as there could be something that’s an opportunity or a threat. We are prewired to notice other things and can’t switch off our attentiveness to the environment.”

So are there times when being distracted by your environment is a good thing? In the technology industry, we actively benefit from our open-plan office here at projectfive. The need to be aware of what our teammates are doing helps us provide a better service to our clients – we can more quickly be aware of any widespread technical problems, because we can see and hear our colleagues working on the same problem that we are.

But we also recognise that some projects (and colleagues) need that quiet space, so we have smaller meeting rooms, cosy spaces and break-out rooms for those that need a change of scenery – we even have a pool table (bright orange, of course!).

From our perspective, the open-plan office certainly isn’t dead, but it needs a large degree of flexibility and the provision of alternative (quieter) working space to get the best out of its workers.

So how does this need to cater for the extrovert and the introvert affect your office workspace? Do you think the open-plan office has had its day?

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