Open-plan offices make women feel 'exposed', 'observed', image-conscious - study

An AUT lecturer says that according to research, women's awareness of being judged on their appearance can affect how comfortable they feel in open-plan workspaces.

Open-plan offices have become popular due to their perceived benefits, including improved communication, accessibility and productivity, as well as increased teamwork and collaboration, according to senior business lecturer Rachel Morrison

However, a 2018 study found that open-plan workspaces can actually have the opposite effect, fostering feelings of discomfort, heightened awareness, anxiety and a lack of privacy. 

"Contrary to popular belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx 70 percent) with an associated increase in electronic interaction... open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw," said the study, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences journal. 

A 2018 study by Morrison and Roy Smollan, published by Science Direct in August, has also found the increased visibility associated with open-plan offices to largely effect women - who are typically socialised to expect judgement on their physical appearance.

The study, conducted in an open-plan Auckland law firm, found every survey respondent who reported feeling visible, exposed or observed was female. 

While some said the exposure increased their productivity due to a feeling of accountability, others claimed the architecture contributed to tangible judgement.

"With open space, it feels like a fishbowl... I have noticed more subtle pressure to stay later even if you don't technically need to," said one female lawyer.

"I don't like that sometimes it feels like people are judging you."

In a piece for The Conversation on Tuesday, Morrison said other research supports their findings that women in the office can become hyper-aware of continued observation. Female staff also reported an increasing insecurity around how others perceived them, including their clothing and walk.

"The downside of being so visible may disproportionately impact women in the workplace... the idea that female and male employees differ in their perceptions of being observed should be acknowledged and incorporated into office design," she wrote. 

The lecturer recommends incorporating "opportunities for privacy" into the workplace, so discomfited staff can work in a more comfortable environment.