Worst thing about the office? People can’t concentrate on their work

Businesses are trying to have their cake and eat it too when it comes to downsizing office space and at the same time making workers more productive. The results suggest that the great majority are failing. Steelcase surveys consistently show how bad things are:

95.3% of workers say having “access to quiet, private places for concentrated work” is important, but over 41% say they don’t have them.

This is apparently due to the widespread adoption of the open office plan, which is approximately 66 percent less productive than alternatives, even the loathed cubicleland of Dilbert.

The real culprit is noise. Julian Treasure, the chair of the Sound Agency, said,

We have the capacity for about 1.6 human conversations, so if you’re listening to one conservation particularly you’re only left with 0.6 for your inner voice that helps you write.

As a result, headphones have become the new wall, both countering the noise by covering ears or with noise cancellation but also sending the overt social signal of “I’m working, and I’d like to be left alone.”

I work at home, so I avoid a lot of the office noise issue. But at times my wife and other family members are talking on the phone or with one another, so I have adopt the use of an app called Ambiance, which has an online library of hundreds of ambient noises from different locations. In particular I play a track called “Busy Harbor” that features lapping waves, bells and distant foghorns, and sea gulls squawking. After a few minutes I actually feel like I am on a dock or the deck of a boat, and I can’t hear my wife talking to one of her partners in her office downstairs.

A second dimension of office noise is that introverts and extroverts have very different responses to noise. Chris Congdon, the director of global research communication for Steelcase, offers this summary of the differences between different modes:

My colleague Katie, for instance, who draws energy and motivation from groups of people and lots of stimuli. Testing as an extrovert on quizzes from both authors Susan Cain (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) and Daniel Pink (To Sell is Human), she is happiest among a big group of boisterous creative types, with lots of sensory stimulation. You’ll often find her working in the café, interacting with a variety of people as she works on a new idea. But even Katie has moments when she needs to get away and focus, either alone or with a small group.

Conversely, another colleague, Uli, thrives when she has access to areas where she can control the sensory stimulation, eliminate noise disruptions, and engage in deep, focused work. When it’s time for the team to come together, she’s ready to contribute new ideas and participate in a group session to iterate and create. As for me, I’m a confirmed ambivert. It depends on a variety of factors: the type of work I’m doing, the tools I need, or the mood I’m in. Some days, I get my best thinking done when surrounded by people and activity. Other times, I need walls with full acoustical seals that shield me from disruptions (plus ear buds, for good measure).

So it appears that the future of the office is to provide a spectrum of noise and openness and to allow people to freely move around in it, instead of plunking people down in an open room with hard surfaces and factory-like noise and no where to escape. Consider the ends of the spectrum. At one end, a café-like open area with a variety of seating options, food and drink, and perhaps even Starbucks-like music playing. At the other, a library-like quiet and heads-down solitary work environment, with no talking and no cell phones. And in between a variety of alcoves, offices, and meeting spaces suitable for different sorts of intermediate co-working activities, like one-on-one work sessions, meetings, brainstorming, and project scrums.

Everyone needs a range of stimuli and at different times, over the course of the day or week: what Steelcase calls “a palette of place.” Unless businesses can move past the uniformly open and loud office environments that are the norm today and evolve a gradient of privacy and quiet as well, we will continue to hear that people can’t concentrate in the office.

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Stowe Boyd

Stowe Boyd

researcher-at-large Stowe Boyd

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