De­spite grow­ing ev­i­dence about the draw­backs of the much-ma­ligned open-plan of­fice, it’s prob­a­bly here to stay. The fin­week team looks at ways to stay sane amid the dis­trac­tions and ir­ri­ta­tions.

Finweek English Edition - - FRONT PAGE - ed­i­to­rial@fin­

any­one who has suf­fered through a co-worker’s ex­cru­ci­at­ing 40-minute phone con­ver­sa­tion with his “Honey Bunny” about what they are go­ing to have for “dindins” has long re­alised what aca­demic stud­ies are only now con­firm­ing: open-plan of­fices are bad for pro­duc­tiv­ity, and for in­ter­per­sonal re­la­tions.

A study by Queens­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy showed that open-plan of­fices had an over­all neg­a­tive im­pact in 90% of work­places ex­am­ined, and con­trib­uted to con­flict and higher staff turnover.

Nu­mer­ous other stud­ies show that work­ers fre­quently cite the lack of pri­vacy as the pri­mary stres­sor in their work­ing lives.

A Univer­sity of Syd­ney re­search project, polling more than 40 000 work­ers across the world, found that the main draw­back of open-plan of­fices (low­ered pro­duc­tiv­ity due to in­ter­rup­tions and noise) far out­weighed the ben­e­fits (col­lab­o­ra­tion and ca­ma­raderie).

Open-plan of­fices were sup­posed to bol­ster team­work and im­prove com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but there is a grow­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion that many key tasks re­quire soli­tary ef­fort and high at­ten­tion lev­els for longer pe­ri­ods.

In an en­vi­ron­ment of con­stant in­ter­rup­tion, achiev­ing sus­tained con­cen­tra­tion is of­ten im­pos­si­ble.

This was con­firmed a num­ber of years ago, when 600 soft­ware de­vel­op­ers across dozens of com­pa­nies were asked to un­der­take a se­ries of cod­ing tasks. The study found no cor­re­la­tion be­tween the top per­form­ers and their years of ex­pe­ri­ence, nor be­tween their per­for­mance and how much time they took.

How­ever, most of the top per­form­ers had one thing in com­mon: they worked in pri­vate workspaces. And more than 75% of the de­vel­op­ers who fared the worst, said they are con­stantly dis­tracted by peo­ple.

Com­mu­nal work­places also make you sick. Viruses and bac­te­ria spread quickly, and, as high­lighted in the Queens­land study, work­ers in those of­fices have higher stress and blood pres­sure lev­els.

A 2011 Dan­ish sur­vey showed that the in­ci­dence of sick leave was a stun­ning 62% higher in open-plan of­fices than among work­ers who had their own of­fices.

A Cana­dian study showed that work­ers in open­plan of­fices took 70% more sick days than those who work from home. (The fact that you can’t reg­u­late the air-con­di­tion­ing to your own body tem­per­a­ture may also have some­thing to do with it.)


Still, the open-plan of­fice won’t die soon. Bosses love it. They get to see what ev­ery­one is up to in one sweep­ing glance, and, most im­por­tantly, it re­mains the cheap­est way to house work­ers.

It is par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar in South Africa. A sur­vey of 17 coun­tries by the of­fice in­fra­struc­ture group Steel­case showed that South African of­fice work­ers are (af­ter the UK) most likely to work in open-plan of­fices. And in truth, open-plan of­fices po­ten­tially have sig­nif­i­cant ben­e­fits, says Terry Sorour, ex­ec­u­tive coach at Leader Coach­ing and for­mer se­nior ex­ec­u­tive of the McCarthy Mo­tor Group.

“It of­fers less claus­tro­pho­bic work­ing con­di­tions in a large open space, com­pared to be­ing con­fined in boxed-in of­fices. It can also help cre­ate team spirit with ev­ery­one work­ing in close prox­im­ity, and al­lows eas­ier and quicker per­sonal ac­cess to one an­other.”

This was borne out by the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Bri­tish phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal group Glaxo Smith-Kline, which re­ported a 50% drop in email traf­fic af­ter it con­verted its of­fices to an open-plan en­vi­ron­ment. The Wall Street Jour­nal re­ported that the com­pany also saw a 25% in­crease in the speed that de­ci­sions were made.

How­ever, these ben­e­fits won’t be achieved (or sus­tained) if em­ploy­ees are con­stantly frus­trated or dis­tracted by the harm­ful as­pects of open-plan work­ing.


Set rules. Ini­ti­ate a dis­cus­sion with your team mem­bers on the house rules, says Sorour. This may in­clude that you all agree to keep phones si­lenced and that ev­ery­one has to take per­sonal calls out­side the work space. No shout­ing across the cu­bi­cles (in­stead, walk over to a col­league or email a query), no un­nec­es­sary dis­rup­tions, no eat­ing of overly “fra­grant” food (or ex­ces­sively crunchy snacks) at desks. Hav­ing a fixed set of rules will help to guide be­hav­iour and defuse ten­sions.

Use props. In some of­fices, work­ers may po­si­tion some­thing on their desks (for ex­am­ple, a flag) or use other items (in­clud­ing “think­ing caps” or weird hats) to in­di­cate that they don’t want to be dis­turbed.

Ban desk gath­er­ings. Im­promptu mini-meet­ings at your desk can be a huge dis­trac­tion for oth­ers.

Plan your day. If you are typ­i­cally at your desk be­fore your col­leagues ar­rive (or fin­ish af­ter they have left), don’t waste the quiet times by work­ing through your emails. Use the time to do meaty work that re­quires your full at­ten­tion.

Head­phones. Re­cently de­scribed in The New York-Times as “the new walls”, head­phones can be a pow­er­ful way to sep­a­rate your­self from dis­trac­tions.

If mu­sic dis­tracts you, you can down­load a range of white noises or other back­ground sounds to drown out your col­league slurp­ing their cap­puc­cino.

Per­son­alise your work space. Nu­mer­ous stud­ies have con­firmed that even just a few per­sonal items can im­prove your work­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

It can also help cre­ate team spirit with

ev­ery­one work­ing in close prox­im­ity, and al­lows eas­ier and quicker per­sonal

ac­cess to one an­other.

Terry Sorour Ex­ec­u­tive coach at Leader Coach­ing

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