UPDATE: AUGUST 24, 2018 FASTCOMPANY PUBLISHES: "The open plan office sucks–it’s also good for you"
"You may hate your open plan office. It may negatively affect your productivity. It may engender sexism and gender inequality in your office. It may reduce collaboration and increase emails. But, like most design issues, offices are complicated–and a new study suggests there is one very good reason to embrace the open plan: It’s making you healthier." Read more.
t is common sense that almost all of the academics in politicized social science movements associated with justice and equality tend to see everything through the prism of their specialty, often creating connections, correlations, and causations that are relatively meaningless; in reality, a distinction without a difference.
Therefore I was greatly amused to find open office plans were mildly sexist because they force, among other things, clerical and managerial staff to dress more appropriately given their function and visibility to managers, colleagues, and visitors to the office. And that a lack of privacy when receiving bad news or feeling emotional was problematical.
“Employees subconsciously act and dress differently in modern open-plan office environments, according to a new study published in the journal Gender, Work, and Organization. Research carried out by Anglia Ruskin University and the University of Bedfordshire over the course of three years analyzed the behavior of around 1,000 employees at a UK local authority that moved from six separate departmental buildings into a new shared office building.”
“Interviews with workers found numerous examples of people, particularly women, changing their behavior and dress as a result of working in an environment of constant visibility. Some people remarked they felt exposed in certain situations, for example, if they had some bad news and felt emotional.”
“Lead author Dr. Alison Hirst, of Anglia Ruskin University, said: "When changing from a more closed, compartmentalized office space to a new open-plan, transparent and fluid working space, office workers were more conscious of their visibility and often found this unsettling rather than liberating. Women in particularly felt anxious about the idea of being constantly watched and felt they had to dress in a certain way. However, there was also evidence that workers felt more equal as everybody was more approachable in an open space. It was also seen by some as a chance to dress more smartly and fulfill a new identity."
"Doing gender in the 'new office'" was published online in Gender, Work, and Organization in the March 2018 print issue.
So what can we learn?
- Everyone should dress appropriately for their environment and rank in the organizational hierarchy.
- Bad news should be delivered in a private area and individuals who are feeling “emotional” should, likewise, seek some form of privacy.
- Academics and their findings should be taken with some degree of skepticism lest their folderol unnecessarily burden the enterprise with needless and unhelpful constraints based on a political agenda.
An example of this type of politicization can be found on the co.design feature on the fastcompany.com website which featured a post titled “The Subtle Sexism Of Your Open Plan Office -- A remarkable new study documents the experiences of women in an open office designed by men.” based on the above academic study.”
The post noted, “The uniformity of the spaces had another effect on one woman who was going through menopause–she felt like she couldn’t have a fan on her desk to help with hot flashes because everyone would have noticed: ‘I just have to sort of work through it,’ she told the researchers.”
And the post went on to note, “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all the designers of the workspace were men. Would the design have been different if there were any women on the team? Are the experiences of these women limited to this particular open-office design, or do others suffer the same kind of anxiety?”
It is inescapable that there will always be someone uncomfortable in any setting given the diversity of employees and their individual circumstances.
Office space planning is often an architectural issue involving the number of individuals that can be comfortably accommodated within a given space and providing that amenities of each individual space reflects an individual's rank in the company hierarchy -- and not their gender. Which always appears problematical to someone advancing a political agenda based on some artificial construct of "equality."