Creating Privacy in an Open-Plan Office

Headphones on, David Bowie poster in front of me, I’m as oblivious to my surroundings as possible. I went back to the store where I bought the poster, looking for peripheral-vision solutions—posters I could put on either side of me—but couldn’t find solution that would work without something to lean those additional posters against. Sadly, the only (very short) border to my workstation is the tiny one in front of me (just high enough to lean a poster against). My sides are completely exposed. My feet are exposed, too, as the short wall in front of me does not extend all the way down to the floor. I often get an accidental tap or kick from the tall woman who sits across from me. 

Most workers don’t resort to extreme measures, like creating their own wall, but an article from Harvard Business Reviewby Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber notes that people are creative in finding ways to shut out distraction at work: “Even in open spaces with colleagues in close proximity, people who want to eschew interactions have an amazing capacity to do so. They avoid eye contact, discover an immediate need to use the bathroom or take a walk, or become so engrossed in their tasks that they are selectively deaf (perhaps with the help of headphones),” Bernstein and Waber write. 

For some of us, there also is the discomfort of being watched and feeling on display. When we first moved into our current office, I rejoiced when I saw that a man who makes me feel uncomfortable would be sitting far from me. Nevertheless, with our wide-open layout, I amazingly would catch him watching me from across the room. Just my luck, the seating chart was rearranged, and he now sits just two seats to the left of me, with no walls to shut out his prying eyes. It’s so bad that, though I have two computer monitors, I only use the one on the right. When I tried using the left monitor, his eyes would immediately dart over to me, as though I were looking at him instead of the computer screen. I’ve thought of talking to Human Resources about it, but what would I say? Is it harassment for someone to be looking at you (without talking to you or touching you)? Somehow I don’t think my complaint would resonate, and probably would make me look ridiculous. I could request to be moved, but outside of that one bothersome person, I really like where I sit. It’s at the end of the row, so as bad as the open plan is, I don’t have anyone immediately to the right of me, and my storage space is better than many of the other workstations.

It turns out that women often are impacted more by the discomfort of feeling on display than men are in open-plan layouts. A Fast Company article by Katharine Schwab from 2018 noted this phenomenon. Schwab writes that recent research shows that, in addition to all its other flaws, the open-plan layout is “subtly sexist.” Schwab describes the research on the impact on women of open-plan layouts like this: “This kind of all-glass, no-privacy environment leads to a subtle kind of sexism, where women are always being watched and thus judged on their appearances, causing anxiety for many employees.” She notes the comparison one researcher made, funnily enough, to a nude beach in which the researcher hypothesized that people would be uncomfortable at first, but then quickly would become comfortable once they realized everyone on the beach was nude and in the same situation as themselves. The problem is that hypothesis turned out to be faulty: “…Sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other–‘men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,’” Schwab quotes the researcher as writing. The open-plan office plays out in a similar fashion, with most women able to disregard those around them, while many of the men have eyes that rove around the open layout looking for available women, just as they would at a bar or club. 

I’ve become hostile to the man sitting a couple seats away from me. I make a point of aggressively ignoring him, going so far as to turn my head away as soon as I see him coming, and I keep my head turned every time I have to get up and pass his desk. 

The discomfort of women like me is just one of the many drawbacks of the open-plan layout—others include lack of noise control, constant visual distractions, and lack of personal storage space. 

My sister’s company is kicking the open-plan layout up a notch in its next office space. Employees won’t have assigned workstations. Instead, they will be given small storage lockers. My sister joked that hers will be filled entirely with the dress shoes she changes into after arriving from her commute. It sounds like regression back to high school or pre-school when we were each given our own cubby. 

Is there a better way to approach office workstation and seating arrangements? Could the old, simple cubicle and opaque-wall office system be superior? Isn’t the “innovative,” “progressive” open-plan layout just the old “bullpen” layout from the 1950s?


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