Open plan offices can stifle productivity, but they can also expose staff to things they perhaps shouldn’t hear, such as negative body talk, money or personal issues.
Hannah* was at work one day when her supervisor asked her a common question: “What should I have for lunch?” Like most people who ask that question, she wasn’t seeking input, she was just thinking out loud. Hannah knew she liked pizza, so suggested it.
The supervisor continued to direct her inner monologue to everyone and no one in particular.
“I need to eat something healthy. I usually don’t eat much throughout the week. I’m trying to lose two kilograms by this weekend. I have a boat party to go to.”
What this supervisor didn’t know was that Hannah, like around 16 per cent of all Australians, has a complicated relationship with her body and was previously diagnosed with an eating disorder. One that she’s working through with professional support, and conversations like this in the workplace can be unravelling. I know this because Hannah is a friend of mine and I saw firsthand how much the exposure to this conversation had affected her.
“My supervisor’s comments triggered some disordered thoughts and behaviours for me that night. I didn’t eat much the next day and that night I felt really nervous. I was really hungry but was trying to suppress my appetite and resist the urgency to eat,” says Hannah, who wanted me to clarify that this wasn’t a healthy response.
Whenever I hear someone comment on their body in a workplace or social setting – saying something like ‘I look fat’, ‘I can’t eat that’ or ‘I’m such a pig’ – I can’t help but feel completely aware of every inch of my own body. I think, “If that’s how they see themselves imagine what they’re thinking about me?”
But they’re not thinking about me, that’s the point. What some people don’t realise is when you start talking about losing weight or looking fat, you’re not just commenting on your own body. You’re commenting on all the bodies in the space around you. This is especially problematic if you’re a member of a leadership team, charged with setting the tone for staff members that look up to you.
James Hancock, business director at Making Work Absolutely Human (Mwah), says open plan offices are the norm now; this design is all some junior employees have ever known. So they need to understand how to deal with certain conversations they may be exposed to.
“Open plan offices have also raised the expectations and visibility placed on leaders around the kinds of conversations they’re having. But good leaders would have been [monitoring] that for a long time,” he says.
Director of psychology at the Workplace Mental Health Institute, Emi Golding, says conversations around health and wellbeing at work are important, but don’t ever make it personal.
“People who have a senior position in the workplace have a responsibility to make sure that when they’re having sensitive conversations, they’re doing it appropriately. That might mean not having that conversation in an open plan office. On the other side of that, individuals need to build up their personal resilience to be able to cope with others who might not always do the right thing,” she says.
Hancock says there are certain topics of conversation that might seem overwhelmingly positive to an individual that could be interpreted differently by another staff member.
“For example, your New Year’s resolution might be to run a marathon. There’s nothing against anyone who wants to do that, but that can put pressure on other people in the office. It doesn’t mean that conversation can’t happen, it’s just about being mindful about who you’re having it with and the repetition level of that conversation.”
Money is a topic divides a lot of people. Some say it’s healthy to be transparent and openly speak about and share salary information, annual revenue and other financial information. Others think it’s very inappropriate and can cause a divide amongst staff and alienate individuals.
And it’s not just triggered by direct salary comparisons. If a staff member feels they’re underpaid – whether that’s justified or not – and they hear a conversation about a single sale the company has made (amounting to their annual salary and then some), that employee could start to feel undervalued, which leads to a lack of engagement, a decrease in the quality of their work and so on.
It doesn’t even have to be financial information about your business. Hearing someone you were pretty sure was on an equal footing to you brag about an expensive purchase can lead to unhealthy suspicion.
Golding suggests organisations reflect on why they’re having conversations around money in the first place. What’s the purpose of the conversation?
“Big business put out annual reports about how much they’re making, but that’s different to colleagues sharing their pay packets with each other. If colleagues are having conversations around hitting targets, that may be a relevant conversation to have in the office.
“As human beings, we have a tendency to compare ourselves with others. As soon as jealousy comes into a team, people are less likely to collaborate. It can create an ‘us versus them’ environment, and that can be really toxic,” she says.
The mental health conversation
A recent report released by Allianz Australia found that 88 per cent of employees want more dialogue about mental health at work, but 70 per cent believe their employers don’t understand the impact of mental ill-health.
If a manager decides to speak with other employees or people within a leadership team about the mental health of an individual – perhaps just to see if others had noticed – is that okay?
I put this question to Hancock and Golding and they both gave a similar response: even if that conversation is well intentioned, it’s only okay if the manager has the individual’s consent.
“Without consent it makes things worse. Not just for the individual whose health is being discussed, but for those other employees who are observing it. They start to think about what their managers are saying about them behind their backs. That undermines the trust people have in their manager,” Golding says.
Hancock supports this statement, and adds, “There’s a bigger balance of psychological safety, not only for the leader and the person currently experiencing the mental health issue, but for the broader team. I appreciate the intent to normalise these conversations at work, but I don’t think that focusing on individuals within the team and specifics are the right way to do it. That can have a really lasting impact on how people view that particular employee – positively and negatively.”
Watercooler chat is an important pillar of any office. It’s important employees feel connected with one another through the experiences shared during these conversations, but it’s easy to overstep the line.
Golding remembers a good example of this. A manager in an organisation was having a problem with her senior manager, and her way of processing her issues was to speak about it… with everyone.
“That undermines the authority of the more senior leader. It creates bad feelings for all the employees who are listening to that. Particularly because she was still quite a senior person in the organisation and her role was to support people to have positive feelings in the workplace,” says Golding.
“This behaviour plants the seed that there’s conflict going on within the organisation and then people fill in the gaps themselves, often in a way that’s not accurate because they don’t have all the information.”
To manage over-sharers, Hancock suggests organisations determine their own norms.
“The reason we have open plan offices is to collaborate and communicate openly, but judgment and confidentiality need to be exercised around certain topics. So as an organisation, communicate which topics should be saved for private spaces and seek employee’s input on them; make space for their opinions and feedback.”
“I don’t think this is a problem that will go away. HR need to have these conversations with leaders. What you’re aiming for is people feeling comfortable and psychologically safe at work.”
*Name has been changed
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