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We have seen a rise in the number of office refurbishments over the last couple of years, most of them – not surprisingly – are open plan offices. Praised for creating an inclusive environment, open plan offices are now even incorporated in more conservatives institutes. In an effort to bond the team and invent new ways to collaborate and exchange ideas in more productive fashion, the companies of all sizes are moving toward the open plan offices. Google did it after all, why shouldn’t everyone else?

After the first celebratory drinks’ stains are dry cleaned off the new carpets and the novelty of the new office wears off, everyone who embraces the idea of open office too hastily, will soon discover that the office staff is getting distracted too much too often. While employees might feel like they are part a of a laid-back, innovative enterprise, the environment ultimately damages workers’ attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.

It’s true that people do talk more, but hardly about the work-related things. We learn about the office administrator’s aunt Molly and her second estranged husband, about the new circuit classes in the gym across the road… In the best case scenario, staff are forced to listen – or participate – in the industry related gossip, but hardly anything project related. As a result, the employees are exposed to constant interruption from every side, as well as from the colleagues who may decide to pick up someone’s brain right in the middle of their very important report.Whether it’s noisy personal phone calls or constant interruptions, most of us have been victims of the open office.

The problems of open office

The truth is that in an open office environment we are 15% less productive, we have immense trouble concentrating and we’re twice as likely to get sick compared to the traditional office environment. A sense of privacy, it has been proven, boosts job performance, while the opposite can cause feelings of helplessness. Needless to mention, the growing backlash against open offices is gaining momentum.

Another, an extreme version of open plan, is agile working or hot desk working, enforced by some companies. This simply means that employees are encouraged to sit wherever they want in the work place, moving their equipment around with them every day. While driven by the best intentions – to promote and encourage collaboration – for a lot of employees this policy adds more stress to the work than does good. Apart from the obvious – uncomfortable keyboards and noisy neighbours – the hot desk policy carries another not so obvious yet very serious risk to our abilities to concentrate.

“We retain more information when we use the same desk,” says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. “It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings,” she says. “These details — which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we’re working on — can only be ‘triggered’ in that setting.”

It is also important to remember that apart from just memories, our environment can trigger – or help to maintain – certain states. Working mood, creativity, productivity can all be triggered by the environment just the same as memories can. By changing our desks every day we lose certain mental connections that can trigger both our memories and ideas.

Finding the right balance  

There’s one big reason we’d all love a working space without distractions: focus. The truth is, we can’t multitask and constant small distractions will inevitably result in loss of focus for upwards of 20 minutes. The good news is that some companies are now incorporating both open and private space thus encouraging employees to chose their work station depending on the specific task. These “huddle rooms” or “focus booths” can provide relatively quiet space when workers need a rest from ringing phones and loud colleagues. They tend to be small and usually accommodate up to a few people. The trouble with that is, some of us don’t feel comfortable leaving the team to go off on our own — we hardly want to show our colleagues that we are not a team player.  Another, not least important fact is that such solutions, although tackle the issue of noise, don’t help with accessing certain memories or with feeling of being in control.

“The world has put all the focus on collaboration with people thrown in a big room together, but you have to be more thoughtful than that,” said Martha Clarkson, Microsoft’s global workplace strategist. “When you put people in a communal environment, it won’t work if you don’t provide privacy. They need alternative spaces for thinking time, whether it’s focus rooms, lounges, patios or outside walking areas.”

It seems like the choice of the office layout is always a trade-off. While it is understandable that some small businesses might have very few options to optimise the office layout, the more staff is involved in the discussion the better will be the outcome. After all, Google did get something right and if it wasn’t the floor layout then it well might be the employee’s engagement and flexible working hours. The working-from-home model has proven to boost productivity, with employees working more hours and taking fewer breaks.

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