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

Jonathan Brown
Wednesday 26 June 2013 19:33

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.

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