Karen Anne Hope Andrews | Clinical psychologist Image Credit: Supplied


Are open-plan offices bad for us, psychologically?

Karen Anne Hope Andrews, a clinical psychologist based in Dubai, explains that the perceived “lack of control” is a major factor at play.

She said: “People can’t control the temperature, noise or visual distractions. The stimuli from people walking around and doing things is what stresses people out and impairs productivity. Any open-plan office needs to put in measures that give people more control or the perception of it.”

These could include multiple controls for the air-conditioning for different areas or a room where people could retire to, for meetings. Open-plan offices are becoming popular, in order for companies to perhaps improve communication, but research indicates that this is actually counter-productive.

Andrews said: “Sitting close to the boss may significantly add to stress levels. Stressed employees are more likely to be absent from work. They report decreased job satisfaction, poorer communication and the breakdown of team relations. Therefore, private office spaces make a difference and contribute positively to productivity. Research also suggests people learn better, make better decisions and are more creative when they are able to work in privacy and are free from interruptions.”

 Stressed employees are more likely to be absent from work. They report decreased job satisfaction, poorer communication and the breakdown of team relations.”

 - Karen Anne Hope Andrews | Clinical psychologist 

People differ in their ability to filter out visual stimuli. Andrews explains that sensory filtering is a way for our brains to protect itself from information overload. How we visually perceive our environment is also influenced by our previous experiences. The brain then filters out stimuli that is not important, but this differs from person to person.

The main advantage, in her opinion, of an open-plan office is lower costs in terms of construction. “Despite a lot of research agreeing on the negative effects of open-plan offices, the economic benefit means that these designs are becoming ever more prevalent,” she added.

Dr Magdy M. Ebrahim, associate professor of architecture at Abu Dhabi University, has a different point of view. An open-plan office’s main advantage, in his opinion, is communication. It makes it easy for colleagues to communicate with peers. But, if given the choice, he would work in a private space.

He said: “Since I have experienced working in both environments, I would say I prefer privacy. It all depends on the type of work being done. In certain situations, I strongly believe that an open-plan space might be very distracting. When an employee’s role requires focus for reading, writing and making decisions, it can be distracting.”