Image Credit: Supplied

DubaiIn an open-plan office, the layout is expected to facilitate communication between colleagues. But it could also be a cause for distraction due to noise and lack of privacy.

When Zak Toscani, a writer and stand-up comedian based in the US, tweeted about his colleague’s lunch being stolen from the office fridge on March 30, it started a conversation about open-plan offices and their problems. But is it truly that bad? 

The open-plan office enables colleagues to interact with one another with ease, perhaps even boosting collaboration. However, a study published by US-based Journal of Environmental Psychology, states that the benefits of this ‘ease of interaction’ are much smaller than the “penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy” resulting from the open-plan configuration.

Salma Dimacaling, a Filipina production administrator based in Dubai, agrees with the findings of this study. Her company moved into an open-plan office in February and though the space is bigger, there are no partitions between the desks and no privacy.

She said: “You can see everyone and it kind of bothers me. People can see everyone’s screen, not that I have something to hide, but sometimes when you are working, you want your own space. The noise around you can also be distracting.”

Another thing that impacts her day negatively is people’s hygiene level. She states that not all people maintain good hygiene at work, leading to bad body odour, sometimes.

She said: “It is really hard for you to send a message over to that person, it is awkward. But, personal hygiene is something that everyone should be responsible for.”

Shama Khan, an India homemaker based in Sharjah, used to work in an open-planned office. She believes that employees need some peace of mind and private time to focus on a task. People can easily get distracted by the noise, in her opinion, and she found it very difficult to work in such an environment initially.

She said: “I don’t easily get distracted, but when I was new in the role, I would lose my focus. One thing we tried on our part was to keep the noise to a minimum. Whether it be a meeting or celebration, we made sure to go to a meeting room.”

Their team was seated at one end of the office and colleagues, who had a query, would usually scream out their questions. This, Khan believes, is very unprofessional. While on a phone call with a client, her team was asked why there was so much noise in their office.

She said: “It was embarrassing. Our clients are nice people, but we cannot take them for granted. It affects our work negatively in the end. You can’t keep telling people to be quiet.”

Imdad Ali Shah, a Pakistani chartered accountant based in Dubai, is also most affected by people’s loud conversations at work. When he is focused on a task, it can be distracting to overhear a colleague’s telephone conversation.

He said: “If on a call, people forget that they are sitting with 20 other colleagues. Everyone has their own story. Someone will be talking to his wife, while another to a client. You hear three to four voices at a time. And because you know these people, you wonder what is going on.”

Visual noise, the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, can also affect one’s concentration, as stated in a report published by US-based The Wall Street Journal. So, being surrounded by teammates with similar work patterns can be comforting, as stated in a study conducted by US-based Princeton University. A cluttered office can make it “nearly impossible to concentrate” for some.

This stands true for Shah as another thing that is of concern to him is if two different departments are seated together. Their work routine varies and so their habits can bother other individuals. In his opinion, there should be some privacy, at least between departments. Even better, people could be given the opportunity to work from home.

He said: “I work from home sometimes because I deal with international clients. It’s easy for me, as I just have to work online.”

However, all said and done, open-plan offices are not all bad. A report published by Forbes magazine highlights how traditional offices can hinder communication. Many employees would come to work, keep to themselves and then leave for the day. But, open offices can force the most introverted worker to interact.

Ali Arjomandi, an Iranian business owner based in Dubai, believes it is a good idea for offices to be open-planned. It means more communication between people, leading to more productivity.

He said: “Such a plan gives them enough space and there’s more collaboration. I don’t think it’s distracting, it depends on the type of business. If an employee is doing something by him or herself, it’s important to not be distracted. But, if you need to talk, it’s necessary to have an open-planned office.”

He is running a trading company and for him, it is a positive step to go open-plan. He finds it more productive than sitting alone in a cubicle.

Suzy Mohammad Sobhi, an Egyptian business owner based in Ras Al Khaimah, believes that it is difficult to make a generalisation about office plans. In her opinion, it differs from one employee to another. Some people can be more productive in private spaces, while others perform better in an open-plan setting because they get to share creative ideas.

She said: “Some people feel more energetic when they are surrounded by colleagues, so they can share ideas, brainstorm. They could even do activities together.”

At a personal level, she prefers a private space and working without any distractions. Her work requires her to be able to focus. But, one thing she is particular about is hygiene.

She said: “There should be some procedures that need to be taken to ensure hygiene. If people are unwell, there should be a window that opens to allow ventilation. If the place isn’t ventilated, problems could happen. Clients come in, meetings are held, anyone could be ill.”

She doesn’t believe there are any “major or minor issues” at a workplace. Any issue needs to be discussed, including something as “minor” as a colleague’s lunch being stolen.