Open-plan offices affect employees' ability to concentrate, new study finds

Workers who spend a lot of time on tasks requiring focus find them difficult to complete when too close to colleagues

Hell is other people – especially when it comes to getting the job done. Open plan offices – once hailed as free-flowing highways of egalitarianism and creativity – are destroying workers’ ability to concentrate, according to a major new study.

Researchers in the United States found that “focus” tasks that require a little bit of peace and quiet to achieve are more difficult to accomplish when in too close proximity to colleagues.

Nearly nine out of ten of those toiling away in the global knowledge economy said that duties needing deep concentration such as programming, reading or writing complex material were critical to their job, accounting for 55 per cent of all time at work – up by 14 per cent since 2007.

The findings could have a far reaching impact on the future look of the work place, it is claimed.

Responses by 2,000 workers in the United States gathered by international design company Gensler found that the challenges posed by the tearing down of partition walls since the 1960s have “increased exponentially” as distracted staff battle to cope with interruptions by colleagues or the sight, sound and even smell generated by co-workers.

One in four considered their current work environment to be less than ideal compared to more than half of those in private offices, the research found.

“I don’t think it would be going too far out on a limb to say we are at the beginning of a new era in workplace design,” said executive director Diane Hoskins.

“Not only is the focus mode not functioning optimally in most office environments, we found statistical evidence that the effectiveness of collaboration, learning and socialising suffers if the ability to focus is diminished,” she added.

In other words employees not given the time and space to concentrate on their own could not work effectively with other people.

The report concluded: “A frustrated person is highly unlikely to spin his chair around and happily collaborate or socialise; a frustrated mind is unlikely to learn; a frustrated employee is unlikely to be engaged or productive.”

The study found that with email replacing the phone or face-to-face chat even socialisation and collaboration tasks had become solitary screen-based “focus” activities.

Many workers now simply choose to don headphones to shut out the external world creating “virtual walls” between colleagues.

But the return of the gold fish bowl is not necessarily imminent.

Last year Facebook said it was adopting a non-hierarchical approach to its vast new HQ at the former Sun Microsystems California campus where it will house 2,800 engineers in a Frank Gehry-designed warehouse complete with rooftop garden.

The BBC was widely lampooned for the “thought wheels” at its new site at MediaCity in Salford whilst “breakout spaces” for impromptu meetings which don’t disturb others are now becoming commonplace. Other employers have experimented with “pink noise” which pumps chatter-masking background noise into the environment.

The study also found increasing number s of distractions beyond chatting at the coffee machine. Smartphones, Twitter and the internet can waylay workers for hours whilst longer days and less office space as employers cut costs to cope with the economic down turn also impact on feelings of well-being.

The open plan office was the brain child of German post-war designers breaking the link with traditional factory-style arrangements of desks all facing the same way towards a management safely ensconced behind their own cordon sanitaire of oak panelled offices.

But whilst the new non-hierarchical configuration of desks was found to be cheaper and efficient in breaking down organisational silos, there has been a growing backlash. A recent study by the Danish Ministry of Employment found that workers in open plan offices take 62 per cent more sick days than those who have their own room.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
Fans line up at the AVNs, straining to capture a photo of their favourite star
life Tim Walker asks how much longer it can flesh out an existence
Life and Style
Every minute of every day, Twitter is awash with anger as we seek to let these organisations know precisely what we think of them
techWhen it comes to vitriol, no one on attracts our ire more than big businesses offering bad service
News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

£65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

£8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

£14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable