Every open-plan office has the same problem: it’s a constant thoroughfare for chairs on wheels, noisy phone calls, discussion groups, the mailperson and the cleaning staff. There’s endless chatter and banter about the weekend that’s just passed or the annual holidays to come. None of this is conducive to concentration.
As much as people enjoy some level of distraction, many employees are sitting with their teeth gritted or biting their bottom lips because they just can’t concentrate.
Given the variety of open-plan office tasks, it’s common sense to provide quiet spaces, yet few workplaces do. Conversely, in recent years there has been increasing focus on integration and team-based activities; partition walls have disappeared in favour of occasional screens or potted plants to break up the desk monotony.
While open-plan spaces are good for team morale, those needing to focus are either reduced to working too slowly or making mistakes while their ears and eyes are diverted. Writing reports, drafting presentations, conducting staff appraisals, analyzing data, looking at trends, reading reports and gathering phone intelligence all require deep focus and a calm atmosphere.
Nearly everyone has experienced phone calls, as the client or customer, in which an unruly office melee can be heard in the background of the conversation. That is not a good impression for any company to deliver to clients.
Providing Quiet Space
The quiet spaces provided can be simple and affordable, especially when the outlay results in improved productivity. Think of libraries with their small booths or compartments; something like this is ideal, especially if employees can still sit side-by-side but not make ready eye contact.
These areas are conducive to cerebral work because they are contained; dividing walls send a clear message that these aren’t talking spaces. The sound of tap-tapping on calculators and keyboards, and the scratching of pens on paper, encourage everyone to get their heads in their work and not distract anybody.
This zone should be out of the general footfall area, with nobody walking behind or in front. It should be sited at the far end of a building, with a wall to the rear so nobody has their back to an open space. It feels secure and calm. In time, you may find you need to build more booths as these spaces become popular.
At the end of each focus zone, offer a large soundproofed booth for multiple occupants, where people still have privacy and calmness but can thrash out new ideas. You could name this space the “Group Focus Zone.” This, too, isn’t for idle chatter; it’s for brainstorming and problem solving that cannot be done in the quiet zone, but which still needs some isolation.
The Group Focus Zone room needs a round table, not a rectangular one, since squared-off tables are dividers, not facilitators. This space would look quite like an airport business lounge, with everything at hand to bring the booth-generated ideas into reality. It has printers so people aren’t queuing, and stationery such as calculators, pens, notepads, whiteboards and flipcharts. Technology should be at hand, including projectors and a bank of laptops open to use by everyone. Do not password-protect these computers; every barrier to smooth thought processes is a wasted opportunity. If employees don’t have to wander about to obtain exactly the tools they need, they will stay undistracted. People will soon clamor to use the booths for independent work, and the Group Focus Zone when teamwork’s required.
Now, everyone can escape unproductivity. You’ll also find some employees even stay at work later if there’s access to comfortable spaces. However, don’t allow anyone to eat in the work booths or other productivity zones, as eating is simply a new–and noisy–distraction creating messy spaces.
Work Booth Enhancements
Anyone can provide a big room with chairs and desks, but is that the best we can do as employers? Work booths and comfort-based enhancements aren’t about making employees too comfortable, but about enhancing thought processes and working practices.
Decide on a set of enhancements for your booth zones. These might include fresh water dispensers, heat pads to keep employees at a stable temperature and sensory aromatherapy. Noise-cancelling headphones should be standard equipment in each booth.
As odd as it sounds, listening to music or relaxation audio files can increase cerebral-task productivity up to threefold. Experiment with at-work audio via headsets and earbuds, and ask how it’s working out. Certain types of music or nature-based audio files stimulate different areas of the human brain, freeing up creativity and powers of calculation and reasoning. Employees should choose their own sounds, but what they play must be inaudible to anyone else, and a sing-song is strictly off the menu. Another benefit of employees wearing earphones is that others won’t disturb them. How often do you talk to someone if you know they’ll have to remove a pair of headphones first?
Feel free to experiment and encourage new ideas; you’ll be surprised at the feedback. The former lip-biters could be the first employees you promote, because you’ll see a real improvement in what they deliver, showing that some of your best workers’ brains may have been restricted by the environment in which they had operated.