I used to think I didn’t work well with people. Not that I was a deplorable team player or anything; I mean I believed that it was impossible for me to be productive if I was working around other people in the same enclosed space, unless the task at hand actually involved everyone else in the room.

I noticed this as early as my secondary school days, when I was repeatedly saying no to friends who asked if I wanted to “mug” with them at Starbucks. After all, every study group meeting I’d previously been to resulted in only a third of my work being completed, if any at all. Yet, I found myself drawn to working in crowded cafés (and even McDonald’s) on my own. I definitely didn’t hate the company of my friends, so what was up with that? Still, this wasn’t a question I felt any urgency to find an answer to. Until I experienced working in open plan offices.

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Photo: Freepik

Every company I’ve interned with so far has been a startup, and as with many all? startups, their offices were open plan. I remember my first boss “showing me around” the office (it wasn’t your typical tour we were both seated on swivel chairs, and we simply turned about in them to look wherever he gestured) and the hint of pride in his voice as he made it a point to highlight, “It’s an open concept, so very laid back lah, and everyone can communicate more easily.”

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I learnt pretty quickly that he wasn’t kidding about that last part. As a person who was used to working privately, I had quite a bit to get used to in that office. I could fully hear meetings that didn’t involve me (or half the staff in the room), and couldn’t help but overhear every word from my colleagues’ conversations. There was always a busyness about the office ambience that urged me, in some subliminal way, to keep working. Yet, it also sometimes did the very opposite and impeded my concentration.

This paradox of noise is not unique to me. Research on the relationship between ambient noise and creative cognition shows that the optimal level of ambient noise for enhancing our performance of creative tasks is 70 decibels (dB). The keyword here is optimal. That is, too much background noise can make it go from stimulative to disruptive, real quick.

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Excessive background noise can be disruptive to our cognition. Photo: Freepik

While being in a noisy environment can, according to the authors, help ‘trigger the brain to think abstractly, and thus generate creative ideas’, a high level of noise (85dB) can negatively affect information processing and thus impair creativity. Unless your open office has some kind of sensor that detects when the noise level gets too high, it’s unrealistic to expect employees to know exactly how much they should keep it down. Long discussions held in the same room where others are working on their separate tasks create a workplace where either everyone has to mutter through meetings, or where employees will inevitably be distracted. Not the best for productivity.

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On that note, some of us bemoan “noise” when we work with colleagues, but are perfectly happy doing work alone in other noisy environments. Aside from the possibility that you all simply get along too well and can’t stop chatting about how much fun you had last weekend, the nature of noise in a busy Starbucks is generally different from that of your office. The difference lies in the content of conversations. Conversations you overhear in the workplace are likely to be related to what you’re working on, so you can’t help but keep an ear out for details.

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Some employees resort to wearing headphones during work to block out the noise. Photo: Freepik

Headphones are a popular choice of defence, but this means always having to be on the lookout for meaningful glances from the people around you, or risk being perceived as an aloof colleague who doesn’t want to discuss anything with anyone. In more extreme cases, everyone might try their best to avoid speaking to one another altogether, communicating instead through email or messaging services.

In fact, one study shows that with the change of office layout from traditional cubicles to open plan, face-to-face interaction declines by about 7 per cent, while email usage rises by 22 to 56 per cent. The authors found that in the removal of clear boundaries in the workspace, employees adapted to the newfound lack of privacy by creating “barriers” of their own, such as wearing large headphones and choosing to contact a co-worker through email instead of imposing on them in real life.

The same authors also noted that antecedent research on collective intelligence work suggests an excessive amount of social information may adversely affect our problem solving abilities.

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“Toyokawa et al. found that richness in social information was detrimental to collective intelligence outcomes, with performance being best when social learning opportunities were constrained. Similarly, […] Bernstein et al. found that intermittent rather than constant social influence produced the best performance among humans collectively engaged in complex problem solving.”

In short, an open plan office could actually be contributing to the hindrance of collaboration and productivity in your startup. But that’s the exact opposite of what it’s supposed to achieve! So was this just a collective misstep by companies, who all fell for an architectural fad? Or could it be that companies just have a little more to learn about maximising the efficacy of open offices?

For those of you whose startups are moving out of an incubator into your own space for the first time or are simply considering a move to a different location, you might want to rethink that open space concept. If you lack the funds to build cubicles or rooms, or simply believe that walls are meant to be torn down, stay tuned for our next article on how you can make that open office plan work for you.


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