Sound Barriers: Keeping Focus in a Noisy Open Office

Author: Barbara Palmer       

open-plan office

Open-plan office layouts can be “incredibly distracting,” writes Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Around seven out of every 10 Americans who work in offices do their work in an open environment, defined as at desks without meaningful partitions, according to an International Facility Management Association survey. That is, if they even have a desk — workers may be allotted only a few feet of a communal table. The open-plan office space trend, popularized by creative agencies and technology start-ups, went mainstream because of the belief that open-space environments support innovation. More proximity between employees, the thinking went, would create more interaction and collaboration, promote social interaction, and spur productivity.

But in fact, purely open-plan offices have been shown to have the opposite effects, creating so much distraction that employees retreated from each other. (For more on how focus impacts work, see the December 2019 cover story.)  A study funded by Harvard Business School, the results of which were published last year, tracked what happened when a British company moved its employees from traditional office space, with offices with walls, to an open plan. Face-to-face interaction plunged — employees spent 72 percent less time interacting with their colleagues. Instead of talking more with each other, the employees put on headphones and began communicating by text and email. As digital communication channels surged, productivity declined.

And the idea that open-plan workspaces resulted in happier employees is contradicted by a 2018 survey by Bospur PR, a San Francisco–based public relations agency: 76 percent of respondents said that they “hate” open offices. Why? They cited a lack of privacy (43 percent); difficulty concentrating (29 percent); and an inability to do their best thinking (21 percent).

It’s a global phenomenon, according to a University of Sydney study that surveyed workers in the U.S., Finland, Australia, and Canada, where collectively two-thirds of the respondents work in open-office plans. “Open-plan layouts showed considerably higher dissatisfaction rates than enclosed office layouts,” researchers wrote.


Cal Newport

Research — as well as intuition — are making it clear that “that sharing a workspace with a large number of coworkers is incredibly distracting — [and creates] an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously,” writes Cal Newport, a computer science professor and author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. “Distraction is a destroyer of depth.”

Neuroscience also holds some clues as to why the tight quarters in communal workspaces — where workers are only allotted about half the space they were given a decade ago — are so hard to work in. “The human voice evokes some of the most potent emotional responses in our auditory experience. Voice in excess of 55 decibels — roughly the sound of a loud phone call — causes measurable stress,” according to a Wall Street Journal article, “The Neuroscience-Optimized Office,” published last May. “Even more disruptive are overheard ‘halfversations,’ in which the listener is privy only to one side of a dialogue; our brains automatically imagine the other,” wrote authors John Medina and Ryan Mullenix.

But the solution, say experts including Newport, isn’t to go back to putting everyone exclusively into offices with walls. The intent of the open plan — to allow people to bump into each other in ways that spark collaboration and new ideas — is one that is, Newport said, “well justified by the historical record” and can be credited for the success of innovative leaps in workplaces including those at MIT.

Increasingly, organizations are providing employees with both kinds of space — places where they can give their full attention to work, and rooms designed with interaction.

Yet another dataset — this one from Capitol One’s 2019 Work Environment Survey — points toward our preference for that kind of environmental diversity. In that study, when office workers were polled about what kinds of workspaces they most wanted, 77 percent of respondents said they perform better at work when they have spaces for collaboration in the workplace, and 88 percent say that they require space for focused, heads-down work in order to perform at their best. In other words, most people want both.

Science also supports spatial diversity in workspaces: “Humans have an evolutional need for private spaces that offer a sense of safety, but we also craved vistas for inspiration — a condition known as prospect refuge,” wrote Medina and Mullenix. “Open spaces foster creative thinking, while close confines increase focus.”

And in fact, there already is a shift underway from classic open- space workplaces to “hybrid” offices, which combine elements of private and collaborative space. As evidence, consider this: According to a 2017 report by the Flexible Space Association, 90 percent of the offices constructed by co-working company WeWork are private.

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor of Convene.

This story is part of Convene’s CMP Series, which enables readers to earn one hour of CE credit toward CMP certification from the Events Industry Council. Find the main story by clicking “Becoming Indistractable,” which will lead you to other sidebars. Once you’ve finished reading tall the articles, listen to a 25-minute Accidental Creative podcast with Deep Work author Cal Newport on how to focus — what he calls “the new IQ” — without distraction. Go to the CMP Series page for access to additional stories.

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.