How the Open Office Changes Our Behavior at Work

In theory, all the reasons that open offices are good sound reasonable. The unhindered floor plan breaks down hierarchies, encourages collaboration, and promotes networking. In theory, that's great, but the truth is, the open office makes employees unsettled and nervous.

Researchers at England's Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire just released a study examining how employees change their behavior when they move from an office with walls to one without. For three years, they followed a set of government workers whose agencies were combined into one new building. The building's "extensive use of glass and incorporated large, open-plan offices, and collective spaces" often reinforced tensions, rather than breaking them down.

Women in particular reported always feeling like they were being watched. Some employees worried about displays of emotion, such as how to deal with receiving bad news. The researchers also noticed changes in how workers, particularly women, dressed and even walked. Lower-level employees tended to stay in one part of the open office, while higher-ranking employees tended to be seen in more places.

While 70 percent of American workplaces have an open-office layout, nearly 1 in 5 American workers would love to get rid of them. Furthermore, many open offices reduce opportunities for workspace customization and decoration; research has found that employees who feel they have control over their surrounds are 30 percent more productive. Add in the increased exposure to illness-causing germs and it's not always easy to spot the upsides. The English researchers did find one bright spot, though — for some, moving to an open office was seen as "a chance to dress more smartly and fulfill a new identity."