Open-plan offices to blame for employees' lack of focus at work

There's too much 'visual noise'

Rachel Hosie
Thursday 11 May 2017 12:00 BST
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Checking your phone, looking out the window, trying to hear what your colleagues are discussing four desks away - there are lots of things we do in the office when we’re meant to be working.

There are just so many distractions. And it turns out the main problem is our open-plan offices.

It’s all down to something called ‘visual noise’, which is “the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision,” The Wall Street Journal reports.

Open-plan offices are popular because it’s thought they foster communication, interaction and collaboration. But it’s been realised they’re actually providing us with endless distractions that prevent us from focussing on our work.

And now employers are looking for ways to minimise visual noise in offices to make their workforce more productive.

“I wish there were such a thing as human blinders,” says Maya Spivak, marketing and communications director for San Francisco-based software company Segment.

She said she could “barely ever focus” because the movement of her colleagues was so distracting.

That was before her company moved offices though. They’ve now gone from an open-plan warehouse-like space to an office where the layout is more like a labyrinth, with walls, corners and large potted and hanging plants separating employees’ desks from people walking by.

Segment CEO Peter Reinhardt says it’s “almost like a jungle,” with staff members’ desks further apart too.

Spivak now spends her workdays sitting in a corner between an empty workstation and an eighth-floor window with a skyline view, which has boosted her productivity.

The reason for this may be that Spivak could be someone who struggles to filter out visual stimuli - according to Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, people vary in their ability to do so.

But it’s natural to be intrigued by what’s going on around you.

“If we see a bunch of people gathering in our peripheral vision, we wonder, ‘What are they talking about? Did somebody get laid off? Are they coming to lay me off?’” says Sally Augustin, an environmental psychologist.

To combat this, companies are starting to give their employees more flexibility - for example, allowing them to move to sofas with their laptops or to private rooms for brief periods over the course of the day.

Some are bringing in curved computer screens to help avoid distractions too. And others are even going so far as to paint the walls grey because dim colours are less distracting.

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