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Aug15

Open-Plan Sabotaging Workers’ Focus

That Is The Question

Open-Plan Office Design Latest Research

New research claims the open-plan design of some offices is ‘sabotaging’ workers’ ability to focus on their work, and that increasing connectivity, which is supposed to give workers the high-tech plug-in to the information flow to help them in the modern work environment, is actually ‘paralysing’ them with information overflow.

Designing For Focus Work

Mobile deviceThe research comes in a white paper called Designing For Focus Work, from furniture makers’ Haworth, and the figures it talks about are far from trivial. One of the headline figures from the white paper is that staff in open-plan offices lose up to 28% of their productive time in any given day due to disturbances and distractions, the open-plan structure meaning not only that anyone is potentially free to interrupt anyone at any time, but also that things like the office noise floor, overheard conversation and comparatively far-off office events in other teams can all contribute to the distraction matrix of any individual worker, leading to disrupted focus. Indeed, Haworth’s research suggests that focus work is the least supported function in modern open-plan offices. That in turn is leading to more people trying to turn up earlier or stay later to get more focused work done ‘while the office is quiet.’ Open-plan design then is having a negative effect on focus during office hours, and a negative effect on the work-life balance of staff.

New Office Norms

Office Noise distractionsThe design of the office space is not entirely to blame for this trend however – new office norms like an increase in email notifications, conference calls and buzzing smartphone alerts are also strong contributors to the distracted life of the modern office worker, but whereas systems, software and a degree of office discipline can be deployed to minimise the interference potential of these systems, if the distraction-factor is built right into your office design, it’s far more difficult for staff to pick up where they left off.

Create Areas of Relative Enclosure

The solution would seem to be to create areas of relative enclosure and quiet to allow for focused – or indeed collaborative – work away from the hubbub of an open-plan environment. This needn’t be an enormous upset to a generally open-plan office (and remember, open-plan does also have its advantages in terms of team-building and project-cohesion). Just remember to talk to your office designers at the planning stage about focus spaces, and make sure you don’t sentence your staff to in-built distraction for years to come.

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