We’ve talked a lot about open plan office spaces here on 1850 Thoughts and our experience with this design choice has certainly leant more on the cautious side. While an open plan style can improve communication between employers and their staff, the design can be more distracting than anything as too much visual noise prevents employees from focusing on their work.

This is backed up by what furniture brand Haworth found in their latest research with architecture and design magazine Dezeen. According to their report, the average office worker loses 28% of their productivity time as a result of interruptions and distractions. These employees are lacking a quiet space to focus on their various tasks and are therefore opting to come into the office early or leave late just so they can get their work finished.

The open plan design is one that’s become incredibly common in the last decade or so, but while employers may be saving money on real-estate prices by implementing it, they’re costing their business a lot in reduced output and employee dissatisfaction. The level of distraction in these offices is too high for focus work to be completed effectively, and it’s not helped by the presence of technology constantly providing a means to go off topic.

Beck Johnson, a research specialist with Haworth, identified that technology has changed the ability of our brains to focus on the job at hand, because “with all of the alerts we get, we’re in a state where we’re conditioning ourselves to be pulled off task”. He adds that “distractions will exist, but our work environments must support focus work instead of creating more barriers to achieving flow”.

That’s the problem that people working in open plan offices face.

As part of their research, Haworth worked with Colombian energy giant EPM to see how new office designs would impact their employees. The space was revamped so that their cubicles went from having high partitions to low ones, with group meeting and social places also added in around the office. While these changes only improved feelings of relaxation and frustration by a few percent, there was a significant drop (22%) in how well the new design supported focus work.

These findings back up what we already understood about effective office design – that a combination of open plan and enclosed is the way to go.

Open plan offices are never going to give employees the space they need to complete their work efficiently and designers need to start looking at ways to improve this style before it becomes a massive hindrance to employers and their companies. Even slight changes like installing carpets to reduce the sound of foot traffic can make an impact in these spaces, although the changes may be more effective when employees are involved in the designing process.

“The most important thing is to get people involved in the process of change,” says Diego Leon Salazar Vargas, project leader at EPM’s Medellin headquarters. “It is easier when ideas are developed in collaboration with employees rather than imposed upon them.”

Provided that the changes implemented start to show an improvement in the quality and level of work being completed, then employers can take things step by step to create the most efficient office. While major changes might feel like a necessity, it can be hard for employees to know what works best without having experienced it first.


James Darvill

James is a passionate scriptwriter and reluctant poet with a talent for the dystopian. When he’s not staying up late watching the Simpsons he’s beating the world at Mario Kart, always with a glass of wine in hand.
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