Open Offices: Who Watches and Who Gets Watched?

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Debbie says:

My day job is moving from our own office into a co-working space. If you don’t know what that is, one way to describe it is “Uber for offices.” Various small companies and individuals rent space from a company whose only purpose is to provide office space. Some of these are small and local, but we are moving into a building operated by WeWork, the giant in this field. It’s a difficult change for many of us. Like almost all co-working spaces, WeWork is open plan, with lots of glass and very little privacy.

A friend who works at a different WeWork locality sent me this fascinating article by Katharine Schwab at fastcodesign, about the implications of open plan offices for women. Schwab is reporting on a tiny study conducted by researchers Alison Hirst and Christina Schwabenland. Their 50-person sample definitely doesn’t satisfy my urge for statistical reliability, but the conclusions are nonetheless plausible and worth considering:

While some female employees felt like the new office space promoted equality, others had the opposite reaction. The researchers found that many women became hyper-aware of being constantly watched and their appearance constantly evaluated; multiple women told them that “there isn’t anywhere that you don’t feel watched.” Of the men Hirst interviewed, there was no evidence they felt similarly or changed their actions as a result of the lack of privacy.

The architect (kept anonymous, and I have to wonder why) compared the experience of open plan work environments to a nudist beach:

You know, first you’re a little bit worried that everyone’s looking at you, but then you think, hang on, everybody else is naked, no one’s looking at each other,” he told the researchers. “I think that’s what’ll happen, they’ll get on with it.”

The only problem is that sociological research of nudist beaches has shown that people do continue to watch each other–“men in particular, often in groups, look obsessively at women,” the researchers write. This kind of all-glass, no-privacy environment leads to a subtle kind of sexism, where women are always being watched and thus judged on their appearances, causing anxiety for many employees.

For me personally, this is not an issue. I’m old, fat, and generally don’t care if anyone is watching me. At the same time, reading the article did make me think differently about the younger women I work with, and the generally much younger women I have seen the two times I’ve been in the new space.

Even the men who watch women all the time don’t seem to be aware that women feel watched all the time. And it’s not just being ogled …

Not only were women’s physical appearances up for judging, the open office also meant there was no private space where workers could go if they were emotionally distressed or needed to conduct a private conversation. “If you’re upset about something, there’s nowhere to go,” one woman told the researchers. “Where can you go? All you can do is go to the ladies, so there’s nowhere that you can go and speak to somebody on a one-to-one basis where you can’t be observed.”

One of my first tasks in the new office will be to find the actual private spaces (there are always some). I tend to get involved in intimate one-on-one conversations, and be a person that people in tears come to, so I will need to know. And then I can let other women know, too.

The comments to the article — for once, you should read them — bring up other gendered issues, such as increased sexual harassment. My partner asked, and I haven’t yet found out, who handles sexual harassment issues across employers? In other words, we work in one glassed-in office, and if someone in our office is behaving badly toward someone else, we have a human resources department that has actually shown some emotional intelligence around these issues, at least some of the time. But what happens if someone in the next office, or on the next floor, or an off-and-on visitor, is behaving badly toward someone in our office? Where is her recourse?

Once again, we notice how money-saving, employer-friendly workplace changes seem to have a disproportionate effect on women? While Schwab unfortunately doesn’t discuss this, it is a foregone conclusion that people of color (and even more so, women of color) have similar problems in open offices.

I would rather not become the person who crusades around these issues in our new space, but I have a sinking feeling that I’m going to have to.