Open plan offices make us more image-conscious.

Posted on under Today's research

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.

Researchers 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 complex.

The design of the building made extensive use of glass and incorporated large, open-plan offices and collective spaces, aiming to erode hierarchical and departmental boundaries and promote networking.

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.

There were also perceptions made about fellow employees on the basis of their clothes. Analysis revealed that more senior members of staff were identified by their smart clothing and assertive gait. Assumptions were also made based on where they were seen—senior staff tended to cover more ground than more lowly employees who tended to stay within their own section of the office.

The lead author 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 fulfil a new identity.”

So, what? The more open plan offices are adopted, the more problems we find with them. It’s not that everyone hates them—many feel right at home, as the researchers point out. But the lack of privacy, the noise, and the lack of defensible space lead to an increase in stress and—according to studies mentioned in TR—a 25% reduction in productivity.
The dress reaction is interesting because it is something that we have frequently noticed ourselves. One large professional service organization adopted an activity-based workplace (a kind of open plan with hot desking to force more employees to work out of the office and thus save on desks, electricity and rent) and a “smart casual” dress code at the same time. The result was interesting. The women—especially the younger ones—started to really dress up as if they were going to a formal dinner and not to the office. The men adhered to what became the strict interpretation of “smart casual” (mostly designer jeans). Until they realized that clients didn’t see this as an asset. Gradually more formal attire came to be readopted.

The lesson for us all: people want safety and security and too much autonomy robs them of that. In Europe many companies and firms are going back to old-style office layouts.

What now? Employers need to realize that offices are primarily places for employees to relate, to learn, to find safety (which includes a wage), meaning and to gain status. Productivity, goals, targets, output and all the other management imperatives are not why people come to work and because of the way our neurogenetics work, never will be. They are the natural result of the other needs being met

Many office layouts and leadership styles rob us of some or all of these and need to be changed.