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Can you focus at work? Distracting Colleagues? Solutions to the open office plan

About 70% of employees work in an open office right now, but that percentage is a bit lower in the federal government. An open office simply means either a totally open room or cubicles.

If you are one of the 70%, you know that while the rooms can be really helpful to getting to know the quirks of your co-workers, but they can also be a downright distracting.

So how do you make sure you get the most out of your workspace? Venessa Wong is an associate editor at Bloomberg Businesses Week, she wrote an article, Ending the Tyranny of the Open-Plan Office. She told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that this open office design was proliferated in the 90s as a way to boost innovation.

“The theory behind this kind of office design was you would be able to communicate with your colleagues more openly, frequently and easily. It became very popular especially in tech companies. During the recent recession it became popular for a different reason which was cost. It is much less expensive to build an open office than one with walls. Walls take up much more square footage,” said Wong.

Diversity of Space

“You need a diversity of spaces within an office. Based on both how people work individually, how they work on teams, how they work on their particular job and it is necessary for them to move between environments in order to do each job appropriately.”

Google is a master at space. “They build micro-environments throughout their offices. They have little kitchens, an area with cubicles, and open seating so that people can more around freely,” said Wong.

The Gensler Model

Gensler is a company that helps design these open office spaces, like the space they just redesigned at GSA. Gensler says the open office spaces aren’t doing what they originally were intended to do. They were intended to enhance collaboration and get the juices flowing. But, when you compromise focus in order to achieve it you don’t do any of those things,” said Wong.

Gensler’s 4 Kinds of Work Activities

  1. Focus – When the phone or a desk mate just won’t stay quiet, workers need a retreat where they can focus, says Pogue. That can mean making meeting rooms or offices available for people to use—even though walls are unnecessary. Workers can focus out in the open, too, she notes, as long as they are away from whatever is sidetracking them. (Workers spend more than 50% of their day focusing.)
  2. Collaborating – An open office is said to promote collaboration, but that doesn’t mean your neighbor will appreciate when you’ve gathered your entire department next to his desk. A private or semi-private space is great for working with colleagues, especially if it’s easy for others to join in. Keep these spaces casual—it helps loosen people up so they can discuss ideas more freely. (Workers spend a fourth of their day collaborating.)
  3. Learning – There’s classroom learning, which can take place in a meeting room, and informal learning, which can happen at someone’s desk. Either way, it’s often useful to have access to technology and other work tools for this work mode.
  4. Socializing – This happens more naturally when people are bumping into one another, and that only happens if they get up and walk around. So, for starters, don’t give everyone their own printer. Make them walk over to the copy room, which should be welcoming. Obviously, a cafeteria or break room (or basically any place with food) is always a great motivator for people to leave their chairs.

“Gensler suggests a company to consider these different work modes and build spaces for each of them. The “End of Open Office Tyranny,” was the title of my article because it is kind of a tongue and cheek way of saying 70% of us work in an open office and deal with the daily distractions that come with it, so here’s another way of thinking about our workspace,” said Wong.

What do you think of the open-plan office concept?

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6 Comments

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Profile Photo Jon P. Bird

As a rube in a cube, I guess we have a semi-open office where I work. Our managers have offices, but regardless of physical layout, the end result should be more about open communictions and attitude! I also like the physical interaction between worker bees.
The Japanese have had open offices forever, although they tend to be a bit more militant, with 5-6 odesks on each side of a two-desk wide row, headed up by a manager’s desk on one end. Zero privacy.

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Profile Photo Karen "Kari" Uhlman

An open-plan office concept has its benefits if one is among their natural workgroup. However, as stated above if someone in one unit is seated near other departmental workers that just won’t stay quiet, workers need a retreat where they can focus. When I sat in an open-plan office area, I found headphones helpful.

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Profile Photo Glenn Batuyong

Brilliant post. Forget titles —focus on what each member brings to the team. Problem solvers and producers come in many shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t matter what department they’re from. If they have talent and a can-do attitude, they’re welcome to contribute.

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Profile Photo Earl Rice

The Fish Bowl concept makes some assumptions that may be a fallacy. First is the one size fits all. And, it also assumes that the work is inventive or creative. Also, that everyone is an expert or near expert and can contribute. [I disagree with the “I don’t care if they know nothing about the field, they will contribute….that just doesn’t fly in a patient care/hospital environment. In a sales or marketing, maybe, but there are limitations as to where this would work. I deal in an area of processes driven by regulatory requirements, and knowledge overpowers enthusiasm every day of the week when you are guiding managers so they stay within the rules of law.]

How disruptive can one person be? Let me think, oh yes, the co-worker that would throw tantrums, curse and swear at the phone after a difficult telephone conversation, throw the phone against the wall, had a voice that would carry 100 yards in normal conversation, and would run ruff shod over everyone (oh and I really hated the women that would wear high heels, or medium heels and sound like the German Army goose steeping with iron heel plates on their shoes while they are going down the marble hall). Really disruptive is the answer. I have usually had a private office and work well in that environment. If I need to ask a question of someone, I will get up and go and talk to them (absolute disdain for e-mailing someone 100 feet away, to me it’s just a sign of the lazy, and any form of instant messaging ranks right up there with e-mail).

And, then what if you are in the Fish Bowl and you hear someone giving out incorrect information, or incorrect instructions? Do you enlighten them of what is correct? It doesn’t take long for that to break down a golf fish bowl full of co-workers.

So for me, give me a private office so I can concentrate on very intricate work. For those that want to work in a Gold Fish Bowl, I am sure that an old conference room can be found someplace and desks installed in a circle.

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Profile Photo Terrence Hill

The key is to limit your time in the office, thereby negating the negative affects of an “open office.” It is much more tolerable to work in an open environment if I know that I will only have to be there once or twice a week. The rest of the time, I am teleworking in a nice private, quiet office with my own private bathroom and kitchen. I also can be as loud as a want and stream music or news while working. The days of private offices and cubicles have passed. We need to stop debating and move on!

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