Don’t let the open office distract you

Rather than fostering greater collaboration and boosting productivity, schools of thought are increasingly suggesting that open-plan offices create a distracted and less productive workforce. According to a survey by the business manufacturer Brother UK, 64 per cent of workers are interrupted 20 times a day – and when doing something complicated – it can take them 15 minutes before they are fully re-focussed on what they were doing. If this happens just four times a day, that is an hour lost. With clever space planning, it doesn’t have to be that way.

A publication by Public Health England on the impact of physical environments on employee wellbeing recommended that employers “provide a variety of work spaces for different types of working as well as private spaces and quiet rooms for those who require confidential conversations and focus”. Rather than reject open-plan, a quiet zone can be a simple way to minimise disturbance when undertaking a task that requires your full attention.

For a communications consultancy called Cello Health Consulting, where clients measure them on the quality of their written work, we created a designated room for staff to get their head down and write without being interrupted by everything else going on in the office.

It’s not just noise that distracts people. Employees feeling under surveillance is another issue that can prevent people from concentrating on the job at hand. We try to locate staff in positions where they are not overlooked, especially if they’re doing work that’s confidential and can’t have their screen on display to everyone that’s walking by. As obvious as it sounds, we try to put people somewhere where they’re not outside someone’s door or on route to the toilets or kitchen.

Of course, some professions are far more receptive to the open-plan environment than others. For instance, someone at a media company will usually be happy to find a quiet place away from their desk, whereas a lawyer will want their own office or at least the feel of it. We used dividing screens for a law firm called RHW Solicitors, which provided a closed office feel with the privacy that the fee earners required.

The more people you squeeze into an office, the greater the requirement for meeting rooms and quiet zones. However, if space is limited, there are other solutions. If you want to take a private call, you could have a telephone booth hung on the wall or a private cubicle, or you could use specialist furniture. We used high back sofas at a scheme we did for the Health Foundation and cocoon shaped chairs for the casino Les Ambassadors, who were after more of a high-end look.

They have been designed to enhance audio privacy – if you need to chat to a colleague away from your desk or meet a client, these can work just as well as a meeting room. Manufacturers have come up with furniture solutions specifically designed to cater for the different ways people like to work – whether that’s with an iPad, phone or laptop – and have created a variety of chairs, sofas, tables and benches to landscape the open-plan environment for these different settings.

A study by Gensler found that “balanced workplaces – those prioritising both focus and collaboration – score higher on measures of satisfaction, innovation, effectiveness, and performance.” Some of the closed offices I see are lifeless; people are shut away in their cells as though it’s a prison. Open-plan can be great for communication and better for collaboration. 

It’s not just there because it costs less – it fosters a less hierarchical, more open culture where the door is always open because there aren’t any. Clearly, there are benefits to both open-plan and closed offices. What we are saying is that with clever design, you can have the best of both worlds.

Guy Crabb is managing director at ODB Group.

To promote trust and foster high engagement amongst staff, we’ve put together our top tips to maintain employee privacy in today’s open offices.

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