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The Many Ways Open Offices Sap Our Productivity

From overheard phone conversations to getting distracted every time someone walks by, most office designs make it hard to get much done.

The Many Ways Open Offices Sap Our Productivity
[Photo: Flickr user David Sim]

The problem companies face when they hire a lot of people is that you have to put those people somewhere so that they can work. Over the last 20 years, two trends have become commonplace: cubicles and open offices. These two methods have one thing in common: they trade space for productivity.

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The cubicle surrounds a desk with a set of walls, giving employees a semi-private workspace. Initially, most cubicles were high enough that most people could not look over the walls to see you, but more recently, the trend has been to create half-height cubicles, which creates a more open feel to the office.

The biggest problem with cubicles is the noise distraction. Every conversation happening in the room reaches everyone. Worse yet, each cubicle dweller can hear the phone conversations going on around them.

Phone conversations are much more distracting than regular conversations. If two people are having a discussion outside your office, you can tune them out. The rising and falling intonations of their voices allow you to predict when each person will speak, and so you don’t end up devoting that much attention to the dialogues going on around you.

When the person in the next cubicle is having a phone conversation, though, you enter an attention-span nightmare. You are hearing only half of the conversation. As a result, there are no predictable cues to tell you when the voice you are hearing is going to start up again. And the onset of the voice is particularly distracting. So, you end up being drawn into someone’s half-conversation much more than you would be drawn into a dialogue involving that same person and someone else.

The half-height cubicle adds visual distraction to the mix. Any time someone stands up from their desk, your attention is drawn to the movement in your environment. That is a natural reaction–the visual system is designed to respond to movement. In addition to the normal movement associated with people coming and going, half-height cubicle farms also promote prairie dogging, in which people stand up and look over the cubicles to see if someone else is also in the office.

The open office takes the cubicle farm a step further if shared desk spaces are created. Shared desks disrupt people’s habits because they cannot personalize the workspace to their work habits. Most people will create piles of papers and folders that allow them easy access to project information. They place key desk supplies in strategic locations that fit their work flow. These abilities are disrupted by sharing a desk with many people.

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It is easy to underestimate the value of habits. Habits are actions you can perform mindlessly, because a behavior has been associated with an environment. When you engage in habits in the workplace, it allows you to focus your mental energy on important aspects of the task at hand. When a work environment supports good habits, the people in that environment get more productive.

All this is to say that companies considering cubicles and shared offices should consider the cost in productivity before committing to new office space that is configured in cubicle farms.

For the many office spaces that are already set up with cubicles, there are simple fixes that can be put in place. For one, people should be given the option to have full-height cubicles if they are highly distracted by visual changes. White noise machines or headphones can help to deal with many of the distracting sounds.

In addition, every cubicle farm should have plenty of offices in the periphery that can be signed out by employees who need a particularly distraction-free environment for reading papers, complicated writing, or other tasks that require extensive thought that will be derailed by disruptions.

The human mind is not designed to separate itself from the environment. It is designed to react to the environment. Don’t add any additional stress to a difficult situation.

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