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Do open-plan offices create mental overload?

Open-plan offices are generally assumed to assist communication and interaction between co-workers resulting in increased workplace fulfilment and team-work efficiency. Indeed, although there are of course the cost saving motivations that drive open-plan offices, the primary motivation is the belief that they are all about community, collaboration and the utopia of productive collaboration.

However, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article₁ open-plan offices might actually be a false economy and indeed a productivity nightmare. The article comments that "All of this social engineering has created endless distractions that draw employees' eyes away from their own screens. Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee's field of vision, can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity."

Unlike noise pollution, which can be remedied with a pair of headsets, there's no way to block out the visual pollution and yet many professions which demand this sort of work, such as journalism and even law, still insist on forcing employees to try to concentrate in an open-plan office, without any consideration for our need for our own space to think.

Open-plan offices can affect our brain due to an excess of different sensory stimuli. We can try to block out what is going on around us but subconsciously it is still all going in. We hear all the different sounds and we catch glimpses of activity out of the corner of our eye.

The impact of this in an open-plan office can be staggering. Some experts believe we are 66 per cent less productive when there are distractions around us compared to when we work alone. All of that brain capacity we use processing the sights and sounds of a busy office leaves us with less of the thinking time we need.

Being given more space to think aids our levels of concentration and actually allows us to work on a task for longer. This is backed up by research, one psychological sat two groups in different environments, one noisy, one isolated and quiet. They were set puzzles to do, which unbeknownst to the participants had no solution. The group in the noisy environment gave up on the puzzles quickly. The quiet group kept focussed and worked on them for much longer.

So do open-plan offices create mental overload? The answer could be seen as quite clear: community and collaboration is not the be all and end all of a work space. If you want people to stay focussed and productive, working alone is far more preferable.

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