Why Can’t I Concentrate in an Open Office?

Once considered a workplace innovation, the open office has become the norm in many industries. Proponents cite the ease of collaboration and communication among coworkers. Team members need only look up from their desk or turn around in their chair to bounce ideas off their colleagues.

These advantages, however, have a flip side. Constant accessibility brings frequent interruptions, overheard phone conversations and background noise. Employees cannot control their environment, and their productivity and health suffer.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

The open office features that proponents love the most have turned out to be headaches for employees. Researchers have found that an open office actually discourages collaboration and productivity. Studies show that drawbacks to working in an open office include

  • Lack of privacy
  • Constant noise
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Lack of engagement
  • Employee stress
  • Smaller workspaces
  • Lack of choice in workspace areas

Overload and Distraction

It may be easy to start a conversation or get a colleague’s attention in an open office. The sensory overload of multiple conversations, however, can be counterproductive. 

A study by the IPSOS and Steelcase shows that in the workplace, workers value the ability to concentrate and work without interruption. Only 11 percent of the workers surveyed were satisfied with their office style, and those workers were the most engaged. The ability to choose where to work in the office was another important factor in overall satisfaction.

Whether it’s collaboration or casual conversation, the steady stream of sound can be frustrating when you’re trying to concentrate. Researchers from the University of Sydney found that noise is the most common complaint among office workers. When asked about working conditions, 30 percent of workers in open offices cited noise as the greatest problem, while only 10 percent cited cleanliness as an issue. 

Half of all partitionless workers and 60 percent of open office workers cited noise as the cause of some level of annoyance.

Noise is the most obvious problem in an open office, but shrinking personal space and the lack of privacy also create distractions. The amount of personal space has dramatically decreased with this new design. 

In the 1970s, the average individual worker had 500 square feet of workspace. By 2012, that space had dropped to 176 square feet. Panels have dropped from 5 to 6 feet to 4 feet or no panels at all. It’s simply human nature to look up when someone walks past your desk, so no wonder it’s extremely hard to concentrate in an open office layout.

The Open Office Doesn’t Always Promote Collaboration

Coworkers may find it convenient to chat in these type of workplaces, but the topic of conversation is not necessarily work-related. In a casual, spontaneous environment, people may talk about sports or their plans for the holidays. When it’s time to brainstorm or work on a project, coworkers will likely reserve a conference room for privacy and seclusion.

The open office allows colleagues to ask each other questions without leaving their chairs. This level of accessibility comes at a high price, according to researchers. A study by the University of California at Irvine and Humboldt University found that just 20 minutes of interrupted work led to increased stress and frustration.

Solutions to Open Office Distractions

The open office plan, in spite of its drawbacks, has some advantages. The wide open space allows flexibility and a variety of solutions to counterract the distractions and interruptions. For example, comfortable furniture and the addition of breakout spaces gives workers a choice. 

With ingenuity and creativity, you and your team can create an “agile workspace” that promotes flexibility and balance. Employees and employers can take steps toward a more balanced work environment, including

  • Improving awareness of coworkers’ needs
  • Creating breakout spaces
  • Letting employees choose their workspace
  • Adding comfortable furniture
  • Installing office phone booths

Make a Plan With Team Members

If you find your open office too distracting, you don’t have to suffer in silence until your frustrations boil over. You and your colleagues can come up with ideas to reduce noise and distractions. For example, team members could agree to whisper when a coworker is using the phone. Try creating a buddy system so that when one person needs quiet, their “buddy” can politely let the rest of the team know.

Mutual understanding is vital among team members, because noise levels that do not bother some workers may bother others. A plan for cooperation will encourage team members to be mindful of these differences and consider the needs of their colleagues.

Move to a Different Workspace

Each person has his or her comfort level and need for privacy and quiet. Some people need absolute silence in order to concentrate, while others can focus on their work in a noisy, bustling office. 

The key is to find a balance between accessibility and personal space. Even in an open office, you can usually create a quiet zone. Try taking your laptop to an empty conference room or a partially hidden corner.

You may be able to create a semi-private area within the open office. Try moving some chairs or tables close together or place a chair with its back against a wall. The addition of comfortable couches or overstuffed chairs can separate a breakout area from the rest of the office.

If you work in an open office, it may help to leave altogether to escape the distractions. Perhaps a local library or café would be the perfect spot for a few hours. Your supervisor may let you work there temporarily if you ask permission.

Invest in Distraction-Cancelling Accessories

Creating a comfortable workspace can be as simple as tuning out the activity that surrounds you. A set of noise-cancelling earbuds shuts out surrounding conversations and sends a signal that you don’t want to be disturbed. Experiment with different sounds, such as white noise, rainfall or soft jazz, until you find the sound that lets you focus on your work. 

You can even have an understanding with your colleagues that two earbuds in means “do not disturb,” while one earbud in and one out means “ask before you interrupt me.”

If earbuds don’t work for you, try adding a temporary partition. When you need to block out distractions, place foam boards around your desk. The boards should be high enough to block the view of your workspace. When you are available for conversation, remove the boards.

Install Office Phone Pods

The frustrations of an open office can make workers long for the days of enclosed work areas with doors. Your company can have the best of both worlds when you add a Zenbooth office pod. When an employee needs privacy or a team needs to collaborate on a project, Zenbooth provides a convenient, quiet conference space. Some models are ideal for one or two people, while our largest model has room for up to six workers.

Our office pods are movable and easy to assemble. When you need a new conference room, you won’t have to remodel your office. Zenbooths features include electrical interface, motion-activated ventilation and dimmable lighting. 

Electric, movable desks add comfort and flexibility. Each booth is insulated with recycled denim and acoustic felt panels so that conversations will not be overheard outside the booth. Whether an individual employee needs to make a confidential phone call or a team needs a brainstorming session, our booths help create an agile workspace.

With Zenbooth You CAN Concentrate in Open Offices

Working in an open office can bring more frustration than collaboration. Productivity, engagement and employee health frequently suffer as distractions and stress levels rise. Employees and teams don’t have to be at the mercy of their workspace. 

Creative use of space, furniture and time can turn a stressful open office into a flexible workplace. 

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