Don’t trap your workers in an “open office”


I’ve been working from my home for the past 20 years, a situation for which I am extremely grateful. It has all the advantages you could imagine. There’s no stressful, time-wasting commute. I control of my environment and have the flexibility to set my own schedule and take breaks without raising eyebrows. Plus I’m always caught up on laundry.

But man is a social animal. Thus, one or two times a week I take my laptop to a bustling local coffee house. Despite the constant clatter and chatter, I am able to really focus on my work in this noisy environment.

Yet, as years of studies have shown, many workers struggle to tune out distractions in an open office, where they do their jobs cheek to jowl with enterprise colleagues or, as in a shared office, people who don’t even work for their same organization. As work management platform vendor Workfront notes, the research clearly concludes that open offices diminish productivity:

A review of over 300 papers from 67 journals found that open office layouts “were found to be highly significant in affecting occupant productivity.” It added that “sound and acoustic strategies should be given high priority in office design to achieve a high degree of occupant productivity.” In a similar vein, another review of more than 100 studies on open offices found that the layout consistently led to lower rates of concentration and focus, and a third paper, which analyzed more than 50 surveys on open offices, found consistent complaints about noise and interruptions.

What to do? Return to the days when everyone had an office with walls?

That’s not likely. Open offices are much less costly than the traditional alternative. Workfront offers several solutions in its blog post, most of which I’d call problem alleviation — such as deliberately socializing (to cut down on interruptive socializing), time-blocking, or sound masking. And those are great as far as they go, but they don’t eliminate the productivity problems associated with open offices.

Instead, employers and employees would be far better served to go with the “work anywhere” flow.

“In the end, the best answer is to embrace a flexible approach to work — one that gives employees the options they need to be most effective in their particular role,” Workfront says.

That means offering employees the option to work remotely all or part of the time, depending on the needs of the organization and the ability of workers to be productive. Indeed, Millennial and Gen X generally consider this type of workplace flexibility to be a high priority in choosing and staying with an employer. Enterprises are best advised to roll with this rather than fight it.

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