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Opinion Week 35

How Your Open Office May Be Turning Women Off

How do women experience open office plans? Differently from men, and not in a good way...

The open plan office was going to save us all. We were told it was more democratic, more collaborative, more...well, open. But many employees never liked open plan offices, and the evidence on open offices’ effectiveness on communication and collaboration has been mixed at best.

Now, a study out of New Zealand explores how women experience open office workspaces differently than men. And not in a good way. 

The researchers found that women in open office spaces feel more strongly that they are being observed and evaluated by other people. This can cause additional pressure to “perform” in certain ways, like changing dress or behavior. This pressure, the researchers hypothesize., comes from women’s experiences throughout life of being judged on their appearance, and has the potential to negatively affect women’s performance in these spaces.

We already know that environmental cues can send strong signals about belonging to prospective and current employees. For example, researchers have found that “geeky” lab spaces (full of Star Trek gear, video games and junk food) can reduce women’s interest in pursuing computer science. Many companies have taken this insight to heart and consciously made their workspaces more gender-neutral.

Companies have also consciously implemented other cues that they value diversity. At a recent conference, for example, I was happy to see prominent signs inviting people to use the restroom that matches their gender identity. Research has shown that gender-inclusive bathrooms can increase perceptions of fairness and safety among women and members of racial and ethnic minority groups. Making the extra effort to show how your company supports people from diverse backgrounds can have a direct payoff. 

But what if open offices themselves are part of the problem? This is a much harder issue to address. Many companies feel strongly that open plan offices improve communication and collaboration and break down hierarchy, especially among technical or creative workforces. And open plan workspaces are certainly less expensive, a non-trivial concern to most companies.

And much current advice about how to mitigate the impacts of open office space focus on issues like background noise mitigation and creating alternate work areas when privacy is required, not around the feeling of being observed.

One interesting exception actually comes from Steelcase, the office furniture company. Their research into workspace privacy around the world is actually a fascinating read. Although it does not touch on gender-specific privacy needs, it does talk about specific types of privacy that people desire in the workplace (olfactory privacy, anyone?)  and how to achieve them.

When was the last time you asked the people in your office about their privacy needs? How did the results break down by gender and other dimensions of diversity?

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