Why open plan offices amplify existential angst

Posted by on Jan 8, 2015 in Commentary, Productivity, Science | No Comments

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Ever get the uneasy feeling that your life might be sliding past in an undifferentiated grey mass? It probably is: the machinery of the brain conspires with the open plan office to make modern work an unsettling, unmemorable experience.

The brain’s internal GPS and the grey fog of similarity

I recently listened to Grandmaster of Memory Ed Cooke  explaining why so often, when one has had a wonderful time at a party, one remembers so little of the specifics.  Things that are in the same place – physically, on a diagram, in the mind – inevitably get confused with one another. Memory experts use special techniques to artificially separate such memories, thereby avoiding such mixups.

Such methods exploit the brain’s internal GPS, a collection of special neurons located deep in the hippocampus and surrounding area which are known as grid and place cells. We know all this from studies of rats wandering around small enclosures with electrodes strapped to their little furry heads, but the points are general and also apply to all mammals including humans. These grid and place cells act as a kind of scaffold onto which we hang all our other memories. This explains in part why the common daily routine of going to the same place each day to do similar things surrounded by the same people lays down so few meaningful long term memories. All the memories are all hung on the same peg and successive work days merge together into what Ed referred to as the ‘grey fog of similarity’.

Open plan working environments are bad for your mental and physical health

This blending of days and weeks into a featureless soup of indistinguishable months and years is in itself enough to make conventional fixed-location work dissatisfying and disenchanting, but it can compounded by the quality of the environment in which those work hours take place. Many people nowadays work in large, distracting open plan offices, full of unwanted stimuli that overload their limited audio bandwidth. Such  environments have been shown to make their occupants  more stressed out, less productive and less satisfied. They are also less healthy due to the rapidity with which a rogue ill employee can coat all available surfaces with germs. I can’t believe that many people would willingly choose to work in an open plan office and suspect that most people do so because they have been instructed to do so by people who themselves work in the privacy of an individual office.

Steven Levitt, the economist and Freakonomics author, claims to be unaffected by his surroundings to the extent that he could be in a dark pit or standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and wouldn’t really notice the difference. This gives him the useful ability to work in distracting surroundings, but he does appreciate that he is missing out the joy of an aesthetic appreciation of space.  Personally, I am very sensitive to place and I think that this is what makes open plan working so disagreeable to me. I have to put in a lot of effort to inhibit my natural inclination to leave and go somewhere more pleasant. The constant low level distraction makes it hard to enter a flow state in which I could become pleasantly engrossed in my work; instead I remain conscious that my life is slipping past in a grey fog of similarity, accumulating uselessly into an undifferentiated, unmemorable mass.

Life is fundamentally a process whereby our time – which is, when all is said and done, all that we have – is converted into experience, into memories.  Modem work is effective at converting time into money, and that money can be used in holiday time to visit interesting places and lay down great memories. But money can do nothing to alleviate the feeling that there must be more to life than this grey shadow existence, in which we pass indistinguishable days in surroundings that have been proven ineffective for the purpose which they are intended.

Making 2015 a memorable year

Varied and engaging activity in disparate and awe-inspiring locations lays down memories that will last to the grave or the onset of senility. For example I can remember every minute of every winter climb that I have ever done. This year I have resolved to spend at least one night per month sleeping outdoors.  This will enable me to place markers throughout the year, distinct experiences that will stand out from the rest of my mundane settled life.

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