For many organizations, creating a 21st century workplace seemed to mean an
open workplace—one without walls, doors, cubicles or privacy. That trend,
and the assumption that people will collaborate more effectively in an open
space, has proved to be something of a misfire. In fact, distracting crosstalk
and chatter drives people to use headphones or escape to a “quiet room” to
think and focus. At the same time, cell phones, text alerts and other forms of
technology disrupt concentration and, for many, undermine a calm, focused
state of mind.
Indeed, the open plan is embraced by some and deeply regretted by others
who say that lack of speech privacy inhibits in-depth conversation and that
continual noise disruptions contribute to physical and mental exhaustion.
Even in start-ups, where one might expect Gen Y workers to feel perfectly at
home in a big, open space populated by their peers, people often seek out a
quiet corner, a room with a door or simply escape to the park or a café where
disruptions are minimal.
The phenomenon of the open office has had unexpected consequences.
Now, the pendulum swings back as we begin to see that creativity and even
collaboration require the ability to retreat as well as connect. It means
providing a mix of open and enclosed spaces, lounges and soft seating areas,
conference rooms and break rooms, that support how individuals cycle
through the day—writing a report, going to a meeting, pausing on a stairway
for a quick update and joining colleagues in the kitchen for beer and chips
on Friday afternoon. People work differently than the open plan alone can
accommodate. Individuals need time to reflect, solve problems and selectively
share with others.
Noise ranks high on the list of office workers’ complaints and it isn’t getting
better in spite of the fact that an electronic hum has replaced the clack-clack of
typewriters and that heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment are
now quieter than twenty years ago. A study undertaken by the University of
California, Berkeley, Center for the Built Environment, found that noise and
lack of speech privacy are experienced as distracting and stressful, especially
when one needs to concentrate on a task. The open office makes it difficult
to escape sounds generated by coworkers and “green design, with its emphasis
on hard surfaces and environmentally friendly insulation, is compounding
the problem,” adds David Sykes, executive director of the Acoustic Research
Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The University of California study indicates that speech privacy may be a more
important issue than noise, especially in offices with large open areas, ubiquitous
cell phones and common areas where groups convene adjacent to individual
workspaces. Although the noise level, in terms of decibels, is relatively low,
office workers complain about intrusive telephone conversations—especially
speakerphones—as well as the fact that it is impossible to have a conversation
without being overheard. The lack of privacy increases stress and “chips away
at good health.”
Dissatisfaction with the distractions and interruptions experienced in the open
plan is likely to correlate with the kind of work being done (programmers
generally need more quiet than sales staff ) and with the individual worker’s
level of introversion or extroversion. “Quiet,” a well-researched book by former
Wall Street attorney Susan Cain, has made an impression on the business
world by reminding us that we are not all extroverts who thrive on a high level
of interaction, activity and stimulation.
Extroverts tend to be talkative, assertive and gregarious in the workplace.
They enjoy “thinking out loud” and prefer to collaborate or socialize with
co-workers rather than spend time alone. But at least one-third of people are
introverts, who prefer to work on their own or with one or two people with
whom they are comfortable. Introverts can also be highly creative as they are
reflective thinkers able to generate ideas in solitude. Introverts are not “shy,”
lacking social skills or the ability to succeed—take Bill Gates, Warren Buffett
and J.K. Rowling as examples of successful introverts. It does mean that onethird
of the people in an open plan are likely to be uncomfortable there.
Gensler featured an interview with the author of “Quiet,” in the firm’s Dialogue
publication entitled, “Stressed out by Openness.” Cain noted that workspaces
should be designed, “where there’s an ability to pick and choose how much
stimulation you want, at any given time. Serious flexibility is crucial. We need
more of a choice to either work in a big, open clattery area, or in quieter
places, in nooks and crannies.”
Research studies conducted by Gensler bear out the premise that people are
searching for quiet—and not just introverts or those whose jobs require a
high level of focus. According to Gensler’s 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, 69%
of workers are dissatisfied with noise levels at their primary workspace and
77% prefer quiet when they need to focus. In still another study, employees in cubicles received 29% more interruptions than those in private offices.
And employees who are interrupted frequently report 9% higher rates of
exhaustion. Plus, error rates double after an interruption.
Jason Feifer, Senior Editor at Fast Company bemoans the loss of his private
office and the need to wear earphones and listen to music while working:
“Back when I had an office, I left work with my mind still happy and fresh; I
emailed myself ideas while walking home, as some newsy podcast told me even
more useful info. Now, at the end of a day of nonstop jazz, I leave work feeling
fried. I miss my podcasts, which my brain just doesn’t have room for. I walk to
the subway in silence, repairing.”
Other people are not the only distraction in the workplace. Increasingly, we
live and work in world that is always “on”—potentially causing physical,
emotional and psychological stress. Work can and does follow us home,
extending the workday and the workweek to 24 / 7. At the same time, texts,
IM and social media alerts interfere with our focus at work. The constant
monitoring of devices is a growing distraction, nibbling away at our ability to
stay on task.
Our inability to focus on any given task is becoming a real concern. The Mayo
Clinic offers courses to aid with “attention therapy” and “practicing presence.”
There are camps and clinics popping up across the country to provide a “tech
detox.” And there are apps that will alert you when it’s time to take a break.
Recent research stresses the need to “layer in spaces” that support all work
modes and are equipped with seamless technology that enables workers to
fluidly move from space to space. In some cases, employees do prefer a shared
space where one can easily speak to a neighbor when there’s a question about
a project or an idea to bat back and forth. At other times, an employee needs
a room with a door. To enhance flexibility, some spaces can be designated as
“quiet zones” or “tech-free zones,” while others can be set aside for small group
conversations. At the coffee bar, high tables and stools invite solo or ensemble
work, as do semi-private booths in a cafeteria. Libraries also provide a place
where conversation is discouraged and quiet reigns.