Open Office Spaces are Prisons for the Brain

Doctor Theo Compernolle describes open office spaces as prisons for the brain. He claims they are places where we become sick, lack productivity and cooperate even less than usual. An interesting interview from our sister site that also applies to creative businesses in the event industry.
Kevin Van der Straeten
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Doctor Theo Compernolle describes open office spaces as prisons for the brain. He claims they are places where we become sick, lack productivity and cooperate even less than usual.


Hi Doctor Compernolle, welcome back in our studio.  




Last time you were discussing multi-tasking and today we're going to talk about open office spaces. You are not a huge fan of those. 


Oh, I'm an enemy of those horrible 'brain jails', 'brain torture chambers'... It's a disaster. It's a disaster for brain work. And it's very much linked to what we discussed last time. Because there I explained that our thinking brain cannot multi-task and that every interruption is a switch. And that we're switching from one thought to the other, and that we are losing a lot of brainpower, energy, creativity, memory and so on, every switch. In an office, people are interrupted every three minutes. 


Yes, there's a phone ringing and somebody else talking. 


So it's a total disaster for people who have to do brainwork. Work that needs focus and concentration. And you're giving the example of the phone: this is the worst. In general, noise is very bad. Because we cannot close our ears. We can close our eyes, we can close our nose, but hearing is the last alarm of our ancestors in the savanna. So we cannot close our ears, so we cannot protect ourselves against noise. And the worst noise is a telephone. A telephone call from other people having a telephone call... It's almost impossible not to listen to it, not to lose your concentration. And there are many reasons, but two of them are: that for our thinking brain, in a telephone conversation, you hear one half. So one half of the conversation. What you hear always ends with a cliffhanger. What's going to happen next? You don't know, so your attention is there. 


It's a good TV show.  


Yeah, and then there is a break, and in the break there is nothing. And this nothing also pulls our attention in that direction and that's where the idea came from for a very simple test that people can do if they have to do brainwork. Not a routine work, but if they need their brain to think, to concentrate, if they need focus, there's a very simple test. That is: if you need to do that kind of work and in your work you can hear telephone calls of other people, you are in the wrong office. 


But a lot of those offices are like that. And what they do these days is make flexible offices, where they build sound bubbles where you can sit when you have to do brain work. Is that a better solution, then? 


Yes, but they have their priorities wrong, because those modern professionals... If they are not having meetings or phone meetings, they're doing brain work. So it should be the opposite: the office should be constructed in such a way that the brain workers can do their brain work without interruptions, and as soon as they need to make a phone call or they have to talk to other people or colleagues, then they go to one of those bubbles. So the priorities should be: focus first and contact second. 


If you were in a situation like: you have to go to work and there is an open office over there. you can't change that yourself. Is there anything you can do to protect yourself in such a situation? 


Yes, to some extent, but the best thing would be to download my text from the website and start a discussion with your employer to change these offices. Or get together with your colleagues. You can do things at the me-level, at the we-level and at the them-level. So there are things that you can do, but the best thing would be to look for another job, if you really need to do brain work. But if you can't, there's a simple method: take earplugs. The best ones are the wax earplugs. You go to a pharmacy. Put the earplugs. Then you buy an old set of earphones; big ones. Just to symbolize to the rest of the people in the office: I'm concentrating. And then from cardboard you make a little screen and put it around. Put it around you and then you write on it: at 11 o' clock I'm totally available to you. And then you work. 


A lot of people I see put some music on to distract themselves from the other part of the office. But then you have the music interrupting, or is that okay? 


Well it depends also on the personality. Extraverted people often have a little bit of music masking. The noise in the office helps. Intraverts usually want it to be quiet. So that's another thing that people in offices do, they call it 'masking noise'. Pink noise, gray noise and so on. But this is not a solution because it's very different. The noise you need to mask the noise of the office is very different for different people. For extraverts, for intraverts, even a little bit deaf, old or young people that have been sitting too close to loudspeakers. They all need different wavelengths to have a masking noise. So just putting this masking noise through an office is not a solution.