Monday, January 19, 2009

Open Plan Offices

The office that I work at, like many other offices in Japan, is what they call an "open plan office". If you search google images for "open plan office", you'll see page after page of images of hip-looking, airy spaces with lots of natural lighting and no walls. Japanese open plan offices are similar, but without the hipness, airy spaces, or natural lighting. Just long tables full of people sitting at computers under row-after-row of fluorescent lighting. My office consists of over 100 people sitting in 1 giant room. Cozy might be a good word to describe it.

And let me tell you, when the air conditioners shut down at 6pm, it gets mighty toasty -- even in the dead of winter.

I searched google images for some representative samples of Japanese open plan offices. You don't have to look hard, a simple search for "オフィス" ("office" in Japanese) yields almost nothing but open plan office pictures. Oddly, the pictures have tiny 1-foot tall dividers separating facing people for some semblance of personal space; I don't have that luxury at my office.

Anyway, having worked in this environment for over a year now, I took special interest in a recent study from Australia's Queensland University of Technology. In that study, they found that:

In 90 per cent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.


The high level of noise causes employees to lose concentration, leading to low productivity, there are privacy issues because everyone can see what you are doing on the computer or hear what you are saying on the phone, and there is a feeling of insecurity.

Now that is something I can relate to. I have found it impossible to concentrate on anything in this environment and my productivity has plummeted compared to the comfortable offices (or even cubes) I was used to in the U.S.

I can only hope that the real research and development institutions in Japan have the good sense to give their staff decent working conditions. Otherwise, I cannot fathom how Japan can hope to compete in knowledge industries.

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