Concentration In Open Office Spaces – Does it Exist?

On Wednesday, April 18, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published an article titled, Warming Up to the Officeless Office.

The article makes a decisive case from a bottom line profits viewpoint for eliminating personal workspace in favor of open space (basically tables and chairs) where employees work while at the office.

Not having to provide private office space for workers who travel extensively or who do most of their work remotely is understandable. This category includes traveling sales professionals, consultants, part-timers, temporary help, workers who share jobs, and people who telecommute.

The WSJ article makes an argument for the open space office arrangement by citing open spaces:

  • Use less real estate – this is a definite cost saver.
  • Reduce email traffic – this may or may not be the case. The theory is that more conversations take place face-to-face. Face-to-face conversations consistently take more time than a properly done email so the reduction in email may not be a time saver.
  • Encourage face-to-face conversations – this is good unless the face-to-face conversations contain too much socializing and unnecessary discussions.
  • Result in more creativity – employees discuss projects face-to-face and brainstorm solutions to problems together. Group discussions, whether using Internet tools or huddling in the office, do increase the discovery of creative solutions. This kind of brainstorming can easily be achieved in a scheduled meeting.
  • Enable stable headcount and salaries – companies are spending less on real estate therefore they don’t have to cut headcount or reduce salaries. This increases stability for workers but does not consider the concentration factor in productivity.

However, as a productivity expert and consultant for 20 plus years, I am compelled to make the case that a comfy chair and a table alone are not conducive to the kind of breakthrough productivity that moves organization forward. Even people listed in the categories above who are not in the office every day,  need an environment where they can concentrate and produce while they are at the office.

Visualize this: An employee is working on a quarter of a million dollar deal, deliberating how to position their organization for a healthy profit margin, or looking for a creative way to solve an angry customer’s problem. As this employee tries to concentrate, he must endure invasive personal conversations, irksome habits of a coworker sitting a foot or two away, irritating cell phone rings, or interruptions by impromptu group meeting of exuberant employees – all problems from the viewpoint of the employee concentrating and using all of his brain cells to solve a problem.

To reduce the effect of these problems, the open space requires rigid enforcement of new policies. The WSJ article cites new rules for office etiquette which include using your ‘indoor voice’, no sneaking up, and no loitering.

Indoor voice? Will this mean the person on the other end of the line will wonder why I’m whispering?

No sneaking up? As if sneaking up were possible in an open room where nothing obstructs your view from one side to the other except people.

No loitering?  What characteristics distinguish a group that is loitering versus a group that is collaborating on solving a logistical problem, brainstorming on how to sell a billion dollar project, or engaging in conversation when the only outcome is team building?  Who is to decide which employee group is collaborating on a monumental decision and which is loitering or more precisely said, socializing, gossiping or planning their next Facebook entry or Tweet?

Noise cancelling headphones are suggested in the article. Will the company purchase these? They are certainly cheaper than private workspace but if the entire workforce is wearing noise-cancelling headphones, where is the benefit of the open work space for collaboration and conducting business?

For those relegated to the open workspace, employers do provide lockers. Really? A locker is like consigning me forever to high school. I guess I can keep a mirror there to check my lipstick and a pinup of my favorite celebrity. Let’s see, should I choose Zac Efron, Bubba Watson or Justin Beiber?

The open space strategy misses the most important point of productivity: concentration and focus.It is extremely difficult to have focused concentration in open office spaces.

As a productivity consultant, I was alarmed by the move to cubicles and now even more alarmed by the move to open spaces. A fundamental principle for high productivity is concentration. You can make to do lists, prioritize your tasks, and plan your day in detail, but unless you focus and concentrate, you won’t be productive.

Going to a gym puts you in the exercise mindset. Sitting down in a private office or at least a cubicle with high walls so you have a modicum of privacy, puts you in the productivity mindset.

With high productivity in mind, I was interested that another article appeared coincidentally on April 17, the FINS Finance blog posted an article entitled Open Offices Aren’t for Everyone.

In this article Steven Orfield, president of Orfield Laboratories, a Minneapolis-based architectural and product-research firm, said that “When you are working in an open office, your brain becomes perceptually loaded.” He added that “Working in a collaborative cubicle office is kind of like working in a call center, and call-center workers last nine months before they get out of there. When you can work better from a Starbucks than you can from your own office, that’s an issue.”

It is a challenge to focus the mind for real work. In my time management work with companies and my coaching sessions with individuals, I find that when taking into account meetings, telephone calls, answering IM and texts, conversations with coworkers, coffee breaks, etc. people only have 2-3 hours of concentrated, productive work time per day at the most.

To maximize this precious time, here are some rules for maximum focus and concentration:

  1. Eliminate physical distractions of all kind. This means extraneous noise and movement.  The ability to shut an office door, or hang a “Do Not Disturb’ sign on the outside wall of a cubicle wall is important to minimize distractions the distractions of people talking or walking by.
  2. Work to reduce mental distractions. Mental distractions can be personal mementos sitting on your desk and pictures of your family. When the mental fatigue sets in, or you are having trouble making a decision, one glance at the memento from Mexico and you are once again on vacation for the next ½ hour.
  3. Reduce worry. Combined with the mental distractions that can be caused by office or desk trappings, many people struggle with the distraction of worry. Their internal chatter becomes a problem when they constantly have these thought passing through their minds: “I’m afraid I’ll miss the deadline.” “Do I need to check these figures again?” “Will my manager be pleased with these results?” “How detailed do I have to be on this project.” “Am I going in the right direction?” “How do I solve this problem?” To be productive, stop this mind chatter and
  4. Avoid being interrupted. This means turning off the computer sound that alerts you to a new email or IM. Let your office phone go to voice mail. Turn off your smartphone. Tell others not to interrupt you, learn skills to handle the interruption and get back to work. Why? Studies show that it takes 10-15 minutes to get into a deep concentration mode – the mode where work becomes easy and your thoughts and ideas flow. If you are interrupted every 5 minutes, you’ll never get there and you’ll expend a great deal of mental effort to retrieve your thoughts and remember the mental direction you were taking.
  5. Make your tasks/decisions/problems line up one by one. It is important to discipline yourself to only let one dilemma, one question, one project occupy your mind at one time. By following the previous 4 rules, the chances of laser focus on one topic for an extended period of time is enhanced.

The benefits of creating an environment where workers can think, process information, focus, and concentrate is critical to the profitability of an organization.

After having observed people for two decades working to be productive, I weigh in on the side of a private office or a private cubicle with tall walls where people can focus and concentrate uninterrupted on the task at hand.

As you evaluate your company’s arrangement, remember that having only a chair and a desk that moves from location to location in the open office environment discourages a feeling of permanence. Your reliable worker could pick up and move to another table … in someone else’s organization.


What is your experience? What techniques do you use to focus and concentrate? Write your thoughts and comments below.

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