Taking imagination seriously

By US Desk
Fri, 02, 20

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany in the 1950s, to facilitate communication and idea flow....


The sculptures

of artist Janet

Echelman are weaved

from intricate, colorful

nets that billow and

shift in the breeze.

This piece - which loomed

over Denver, Colorado in 2010

- was inspired by the seismic waves of the 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile and subsequent tsunami that rippled through the Pacific.

The open-office trap

The open office was originally conceived by a team from Hamburg, Germany, in the 1950s, to facilitate communication and idea flow. But a growing body of evidence suggests that the open office undermines the very things that it was designed to achieve.

In June 1997, a group of psychologists monitor workers at a large oil and gas company in Canada as they transitioned from a traditional office arrangement to an open one. The employees suffered according to every measure: the new space was disruptive, stressful, and cumbersome, and, instead of feeling closer, coworkers felt distant, dissatisfied, and resentful. Productivity fell.

In 2011, the organizational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than 100 studies about office environments. Compared with standard offices, employees experienced more uncontrolled interactions, higher levels of stress, and lower levels of concentration and motivation.

Psychologically, the repercussions of open offices are relatively straightforward. Physical barriers have been closely linked to psychological privacy, and a sense of privacy boosts job performance. Open offices also remove an element of control, which can lead to feelings of helplessness.

Open offices may seem better suited to younger workers, many of whom have been multitasking for the majority of their short careers. When, in 2012, Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe looked at how employees of a Finnish telecommunications company born after 1982 reacted to the negative effects of open-office plans, they noted that young employees found certain types of noises, such as conversations and laughter, just as distracting as their older counterparts did. The younger workers also disparaged their lack of privacy and an inability to control their environment. But they believed that the trade-offs were ultimately worth it, because the open space resulted in a sense of camaraderie; they valued the time spent socializing with coworkers, whom they often saw as friends.

That increased satisfaction, however, may merely mask the fact that younger workers also suffer in open offices. In a 2005 study, the psychologists Alena Maher and Courtney von Hippel found that the better you are at screening out distractions, the more effectively you work in an open office. Unfortunately, it seems that the more frantically you multitask, the worse you become at blocking out distractions. Moreover, according to the Stanford University cognitive neuroscientist Anthony Wagner, heavy multitaskers are not only “more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli” but also worse at switching between unrelated tasks. In other words, if habitual multitaskers are interrupted by a colleague, it takes them longer to settle back into what they were doing. Regardless of age, when we’re exposed to too many inputs at once-a computer screen, music, a colleague’s conversation, the ping of an instant message-our senses become overloaded, and it requires more work to achieve a given result.