Open plan: A disruption that needs rethinking

It is not rare to walk into an office and find several members of staff buried in their work but with their ear (head) phones on. To some organizations, such practices are not allowed. To others, it is not a big deal.

Most of the workers who use earphones simply want to isolate themselves from the office environment and focus on the task at hand since the open office plan environment they work in is a major distraction to their work.

When the tech companies like Google and Apple showed how relaxed the work environment for their staff was; it created a buzz world over. Workstations were characterized with fancy chairs, beanbags, free meals as organizations tried to bring forth creative ways to entice and keep staff happy. All this was an effort to ‘tear down’ both concrete and corporate hierarchy walls as Aytekin Tank, an entrepreneur and founder of JotForm described them. The open office plan portrayed a new way and move from the cubicle model well accustomed to by many. 

Has it achieved much?

A survey by Harvard Business School researchers in 2018 on the effects of open work plans to staff collaboration made interesting findings. The open office plan was found to be a major distraction especially for the creative’s. Tellingly, the survey also noted that it reduced face-to-face interactions by 70% as email messaging increased in that time by 50%. Why? Co-workers preferred minimal social contact and chose text messaging or email

Different workers have different preferences, but one thing is common; there comes a time when a member of staff wants to get isolated and focus on a task at hand. An open plan office where colleagues pass by your workstation throwing their eyes onto your screen, interrupting what you are doing by engaging you in a conversation and even invading your privacy is a major concern.

University of Sydney conducted a survey on noise distractions in open offices and found that it was the main complaint among employees in such setups. Less privacy was also another factor; the fact that you are all lumped up in some open space with someone able to peep into your work without your authority. 

The objective of the open office plan was to encourage engagement at the workplace and spur creativity amongst staff. Yet we all know that a humming co-worker, or one who plays music from his desktop, or one who chews gum loudly, or one who opens her spicy lunchbox can be extremely irritating in such environments.

Do we now go back to the cubicle offices? Not quite. The survey seeks to highlight and point to organizations the need to protect their staff from such distractions and also understand certain staff coping mechanisms in the open office setups. By addressing some of the problems it poses, the Human Resource departments can aid maximize on productivity of its staff while also addressing their problems from a point of knowledge.

Some of the suggestions to help achieve productivity in open plan offices for staff include scheduling quiet times. Designate a few hours daily for employees to work individually and quietly with no interruptions. Something like a schedule, a maximum of 3 hours was found to be appropriate for productive work by Sydney University. According to Harvard Business Review, employees can practice shielding; this is where you try to sit in a position where you do not see anyone approaching your workstation. They can also try to mentally ignore distractions in the office. In extreme circumstances, seclusion will help where you go to a room and lock yourself up and maximize on it.

Organizations can also encourage staff to have ‘Busy’ signals at their workstations. This will forewarn other colleagues that the said employee(s) are now immersed in work and do not need interruptions at that moment. The key is for organizations to maximize on both individual and team brilliances. Let not one override the other. Staff should be encouraged to be team players even as they are accorded space to maximize their individual strengths. 

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