Surviving in an open-plan office | Fin24

Surviving in an open-plan office

Apr 08 2016 07:00
finweek team
Open plan office

Open-plan office

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 “din-dins” has long realised what academic studies are only now confirming:  

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 open-plan 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.)

Making the most of 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 SmithKline, 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.

Ideas to counteract the negative:  

  • 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.

This is an original article that originally appeared in the 14 April 2016 edition of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.