Something was lost when office cubicles gave way to open plan offices. Designing working environments where employees are not continually being interrupted is a major challenge for the future.
From the outset it all seemed like an ingenious idea. Everyone would benefit from the open-plan office: creative employees who could freely exchange ideas and thoughts with each other, managers who could keep a close eye on staff and not least financial controllers who could house more workers in the same space.
There was only one problem or rather two:
• Certain people find it hard to totally concentrate on their work assignments when they hear their colleagues in conversation.
• Certain work assignments require total concentration.
"Most of the organisations we work with understand the value of collaboration, but unfortunately they often forget the benefits of privacy. They have focused so much on thinking together as a team that they have lost touch with the value of privacy," says Tim Oldman, CEO for Leesman Index which analyses workplaces.
In the new thought economy, knowledge is no longer the most important factor, rather it is about understanding it and combining seemingly different ideas with new concepts and solutions which really make a difference. Dialogue, sharing experience and meetings will continue to play a significant part, but concentration and undisturbed working environments will become more important. It is becoming more and more difficult to find the time and space for this, with the coffee machine bubbling, the printer rattling, toilet doors banging shut, a mobile phone signal that rings too loud while someone is talking about the dinner party they had at the weekend.
Productivity, motivation and the feeling of doing the job well drop if there are too many disturbances. Most people go to work in the morning with the intention of doing their best. Studies now show that a large part of our being happy comes from that feeling of having done a good job. A job that feels meaningful and where one can see that the effort made leads to a positive outcome. If the feeling at the end of the working day is increasingly one where we do not meet our own expectations and of those around us, there is a drop in wanting to work and in motivational levels. According to the renowned Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, every employer should strive to help their employees reach a state of flow. This is when they become totally immersed in their activities and wholeheartedly devote themselves to them so that problems can be solved and innovative ideas created. But this requires for most people a certain amount of peace and quiet at work, a structure and clear objectives.
The difficulty in finding enough time to carry our assignments that require concentration is not however the fault of the open plan office alone. New technology is also a common source of distraction: Incoming e-mails, updates on Facebook, Twitter, text messages; there is quite simply very many reasons as to why one avoids those work assignments that require extra concentration. The American career coach Phyllis Mufson warns that all these distractions can easily lead to a downward spiral.
"If the distractions in the office are not dealt with, they can have serious consequences on your ability to focus, lead to bad judgement calls and real mistakes. When you get distracted, you find it hard to concentrate and this increases stress, which means you produce less, and you become even more stressed," says Phyllis Mufson.
Control is needed if we are to block out the distractions that we ourselves can manage.
"Distractions do not have to be a negative thing. They can also be a reward once you have carried out your assignment. But if you choose to be distracted by Facebook, Twitter or other social media you have to make time for this so that you are proactive and not reactive. You have to be in control instead of being controlled," says Robert Epstein, researcher, psychologist and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioural Studies.
It can however be hard for an individual employee to have influence over the physical office environment. Some have attempted to create their own space by listening to music in headphones or just even by using ear protectors. This also indicates to those around them that they want to be left alone. But employers who don't want their staff to work solely outside of the office or that they should look around for other employment ought to have a think about how the offices of the future must be designed. Ian Weddell, Commercial manager at Kinnarps UK, sees an increased interest in the concept sometimes known as 3C, collaboration, concentration, contemplation.
"It is clear that a bench-like workstation for employees does not create a workplace suitable for tasks requiring great concentration. Space where one can concentrate is of great importance," says Ian Weddell.
When Vasakronan, Sweden's largest property company, moved their head office in December 2012, they abandoned the conventional office environment for an activity based office.
The relocation was more than just a change of address and was formally described as a move into the future. The basic idea is that the 120 strong staff no longer have set desks to work from but find instead a space to work from on a day to day basis. This may be in a meeting room, in one of the open areas, in the silent area where mobile phone conversations are not allowed or in the café that is located centrally like the square in an Italian village. Having now been in the future for a year, Vasakronan's CEO Fredrik Wirdenius describes the move as much better than he ever dared dream of, ”and I really had very high expectations from the start”.
DID YOU KNOW THAT
• According to a study by Manpower and Kairos Future, 22% of employees go to a place where they can be alone when they want to be productive.
• 28% of employees sitting in an open plan office choose to create their own quiet space through music and headphones according to the same study.
• Two meetings each week is sufficient if the employees themselves were able to decide according to the Manpower and Kairos Future study.