When the majority of workers in the U.S. say they feel distracted, they're quick to blame technology. In fact, according to the "Udemy in depth: 2018 Workplace Distraction Report", 69% of workers "struggle" to cope with interruptions at work.
But could the problem be more nuanced than that and can designated office quiet zones be the solution? It's not that workers are distracted by technology so much as they're using technology as a means to distract themselves from bigger priorities.
Work productivity in the age of the open office space.
Udemy's survey finds that the main reasons for employee distraction include: "chatty coworkers (80%), office noise (70%)," as well as disruptions through "small talk and office gossip."
In other words, productivity is being fractured in open office workspace designs. On the one hand, there is the conventional wisdom that an open atmosphere promotes collaboration. And this is certainly true.
But it also subtly encourages a co-worker to approach another colleague who might be deep in thought, about to hit a breakthrough on a creative solution, and interrupt his or her focus.
We also know that workers in office spaces take up to 62% more sick days. Meanwhile, studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University found that it takes up to 23 minutes to restore focus after an interruption.
Distractions, interruptions and overwhelming noise can affect the actual quality of work. This is because workers are well-aware of when they're operating at their prime. The problem is that they will double back and try to correct the issue or, as a study from UC Irvine shows,
"[C]ompensate for interruptions by working faster, but this comes at a price: experiencing more stress, higher frustration, time pressure, and effort. In addition to the negative emotional impacts on employees, businesses also feel the consequences since even the briefest interruptions can double a worker's error rate."
Office Quiet Zones Can Address Open Office Downsides, Failures
Noise in the workplace comes from many different sources and occurs for multiple reasons. While there is a certain level of ambient noise that is calming to the brain and can even promote productivity, there is a point at which noise becomes excessive and can end up having the opposite effect.
Think about the rule of "no loud noises" in libraries: Ostensibly, this age-old rule exists to promote the kind of deep focus and creative thinking that is required to engage with a text and get lost with it.
Our work, when we love what we do, is the same: idea-based, creative work that calls for solutions requires a sustained period of deep focus.
Instead of focus, what we have are interruptions — 58% of high-performance employees say they need more quiet at work while 54% of high-performance employees find their workplace too distracting. The rise of open plan office anxiety has real consequences.
When it comes to producing our best work, the brain requires silence to function. Especially when this work involves new ideas or hopes to create new connections.
While companies will undoubtedly read reports on the positive effects of "silence" on workers and try and institute designated "quiet times," the question still remains: where should employees be quiet? And what about those in the workspace that still require collaborative environments?
Physical spaces and mental flow
The "ancient art" of feng shui is roughly based on this idea: our physical spaces, the way they flow and encourage us to move through them, affect our daily habits, emotions, and mental processing.
Given that we spend 57% of our waking lives working, this places a greater pressure than ever to ensure that over half of our waking lives function in environments that promote mental health.
Cramped, isolated cubicles are not the answer. These only cut employees off from one another. But vastly open spaces with no partitions are just another end of the same spectrum: a failure to design agile offices spaces with the needs of employees in mind.
A worn-out model of productivity
Why are we here today? The "office spaces" and industrial workplaces of the early and late nineteenth century were mostly large format warehouses and factories meant to promote a particular kind of work: assembly line manufacturing.
With the shift in the definition of "work," what constitutes "productivity" has also likewise shifted. Noise is much more noticeable and prone to make a negative impact because, today, our work requires less physical animation and more mental intimation.
A larger number of workers operate in the knowledge economy and, with the "casualization" of work, a rise in the number of employees requesting flexible working hours and a preference within companies to use contract or remote workers, keeping teams "lean," productivity today is all about the outcome that one produces.
With an increasing number of digital-first to digital-only businesses and an explosion in tech-based companies, even "blue collar" coders are problem solvers and thinkers requiring focus and quiet to implement solutions and bring the attention to detail clean development requires.
The Advantages of Office Quiet Zones
At the heart of innovation — smart, responsive and novel solutions as well as thoughtful problem-solving — is a need for deep, focused time. While research and brainstorming requires teamwork, sometimes the most creative solutions come out of walking away, going into the silence and ruminating over a productive brainstorming session.
Quiet zones in the workplace allow employees to disengage and divide their workday based on when they'll be required to be a part of a team and when they expect to have time to themselves. Modern, office phone booth furniture is a simple & cost effective way to provide staff flexibility.
Because a balanced workspace is all about — well, balance — there can also be times where the noise of the surrounding office cuts into a team meeting which doesn't require the silence as much as the focus.
In this case, rather than singular office pods or smaller enclosed booths, team members can opt for spaces like the Executive Zenbooth which accommodates two people.
Promoting more meaningful productivity
If distraction at work causes a greater level of stress and a greater pressure on workers to rush through work, forgoing quality, a reduction in noise through quiet zones in the workplace can help produce more meaningful, quality work.
Calm and focused time also allows for better organization as employees have the headspace to be able to set up meetings, respond to emails, plan ahead and actually accomplish work without the fear of being constantly interrupted.
Having quiet zones in the office promotes silence through the pockets in the day. It's a chance for workers to really take a break from the "outside" world of the open office workspace. When they emerge, it's with a clearer sense of accomplishment and a clearer mind-space, which makes for better communication with co-workers.
Promoting shorter working hours
Is the four-hour workweek a myth?
Outsourcing is certainly one way to go. But for measures less drastic, consider the way in which having designated quiet zones or quiet work booths in the office can actually reduce working hours.
Workplaces around the world are, increasingly, promoting and allowing employees flexible working arrangements, including telecommuting, remote work and flexible hours.
These hours start when the employee begins their job. As long as a task or a project is delivered on-time, their time is treated as their own. This puts employees in charge of their own agenda and workday structure.
Having designated office quiet zones or work booths can be the perfect complement to a shorter work week. Employees can duck into them when they require deep focus and analytical thinking and step out when they're ready to collaborate — or head home.
Step into the offices of the Microsoft DevOps division and something unique is immediately apparent: This is an environment built along the practices of "agile development."
Only, in the case of Microsoft or even the "flexible" offices of W.L. Gore, a manufacturing giant, this ethic translates into a physical, office space design. These offices are built with a variety of environments that serve team-building, design collaboration, brainstorming, and deep, focused work.
Here, "huddle" areas along with singular "pods," which are designated office quiet zones, community tables and couches with coffee-table format which encourage informal interaction between team members, and workstations for remote in-house teams to connect with remote workers are the order of the day.
Agile and flexible workspaces are simply a natural corollary to quiet zones in the workspace of today.