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Farewell, open-plan: why we should all have private booths at work

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Anna Brech
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Are you a prisoner to the open-plan tyranny? It may be time to break free

Most of us work in open-plan offices these days. Breaking down the walls is more collaborative and friendly, or so the logic goes.

It’s the very essence of teamwork, writ large.

But what if we have it wrong? 

With an increasing body of research casting doubt on the benefits of open-plan workplaces, business strategist Arianna Huffington has unveiled a new approach for her colleagues. 

In her latest blog, Huffington reveals that she and her team at wellbeing careers site Thrive Global have created a series of new “phone booths” for increased focus and productivity.

These private nooks allow employees “to get deep work done” without a constant stream of interruptions and demands.

Here are some headline benefits of you following suit in your own workplace:

A razor-like focus

In today’s hyper-alerted world, it can be hard to stay focused even without half a dozen colleagues around you dissecting last night’s Love Island

So, a private booth really does let you get your head down. Because studies show that even just hearing other people’s conversations is enough to derail you from that next big project or deadline. 

“Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time,” Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency, tells the BBC. “Now that’s key when we’re talking about open-plan offices, because if I’m trying to do work, it requires me to listen to a voice in my head to organise symbols, to organise a flow of words and put them down on paper.”

Being tuned into the chat around you, he says, disturbs your “auditory bandwidth”. 

The same is true if your office is too quiet. Research shows that team members actually interact with each other less in an open-plan structure. Often, the fear of being overheard in a silent offices stymies private conversations. And so, people start to withdraw from each other - communicating instead on email or private messaging.  

A private booth means you escape this unsaid stress, and instead put your attention 100% in your work. That way, you can save the meatier conversations for your coffee-doughnut breather.

Greater creativity

In her brilliant book Quiet: The Power of Introverts, American author Susan Cain argues that our modern-age obsession with teamwork has blinded us to the perks of solitude. 

And one of these is having the space to retreat within, drawing on the power of inner thinking (rather than outer stimulation) to dream up big and brilliant ideas. 

Time alone, says Cain, is the basis for some of the world’s finest work, from piano masterpieces by Chopin to JK Rowling’s Harry Potter franchise, and the Apple computer engineered by Steve Wozniak. 

The people behind these inventions are all introverts: but it’s not that quality per se that has created the brilliance of their work. Rather, because they are introverts, they’ve naturally sought out time alone. And that’s created the conditions for the intense concentration and mind-riffing needed to fuel their achievements.

Time alone in a private booth can give you the space you need to let your mind percolate your own big ideas, and grow them into masterpieces.

And we don’t need science to tell us (although it does) that we come up with better ideas alone. Social loafing (people not pulling their weight) and fear of judgement are both brainstorming barriers that you sidestep when you break free from the group. 

The freedom to do as you please

None of this is to say that we don’t benefit from being around people. We are social beings, and that means we can get energy and pep from our colleagues (as any freelancer who feels isolated can attest). 

But equally, it may be that we place too higher premium on the value of always being together. 

Sometimes, people need privacy to do their best work: but above all, they should have the right to choose.

Being in an open-plan office can feel stressful, because you have no control over the situation - whether that’s being “treated” to someone else’s love of hard house on Spotify, or the pressure of having to constantly tune into your co-workers.

The key, says Cain, “is not to stop collaborating face-to-face, but to refine the way we do it… we need to create settings in which people are free to circulate in a shifting kaleidoscope of interactions, and to disappear into their private workspaces when they want to focus or simply be alone.” 

Private booths facilitate this freedom, providing the give-and-take that sees us perform our best. 

Images: Getty

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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for stylist.co.uk. Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.