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THE DESTRUCTION OF DISTRACTION?

Author : By David Strydom

12 January 2016

Experts are increasingly voicing concerns about the productivity perils of randomly throwing employees together in open-plan offices

Once, open-plan offices were all the corporate rage, but that time appears to be passing. It’s not that these environments will suddenly disappear to be replaced by the cubicles of the past; it’s just that many companies are coming to realise that simply throwing employees into an open-plan situation doesn’t automatically improve productivity and, in fact, often causes it to suffer.

An article entitled ‘Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace. Workplaces need more walls, not fewer’ in the Washington Post provided a succinct viewpoint from Lindsey Kaufman, who works in advertising and lives in Brooklyn, New York. In 2013, Kaufman wrote, her boss announced that the large New York ad agency in which they worked would be moving to an open office. After nine years as a senior writer, Kaufman was forced to trade in her private office for a seat at a long, shared table. It felt, she said, like her boss had ripped off her clothes and left her standing in her underwear.

“Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, yet remarkably oppressive,” Kaufman wrote. “Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air-horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system.

“As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5.04pm departure time. I beelined to the shops to buy their best noise-cancelling headphones in unmistakably visible neon blue.”

These new floorplans are ideal for maximising a company’s space while minimising costs, Kaufman explained. “Bosses love the ability to keep a closer eye on their employees, ensuring clandestine porn-watching, constant social media-browsing and unlimited personal mobile phone use isn’t occupying billing hours. But – and here’s the clincher – employers are getting a false sense of improved productivity.

A 2013 study found many workers in open offices are frustrated by distractions that lead to poorer work performance. Nearly half the surveyed workers in open offices said the lack of sound privacy was a significant problem for them and more than 30% complained about the lack of visual privacy.

Meanwhile, Kaufman, wrote, ‘ease of interaction’ with colleagues - the problem that open offices profess to fix - was cited as a problem by fewer than 10% of workers in any type of office setting. In fact, those with private offices were least likely to identify their ability to communicate with colleagues as an issue. In a previous study, researchers concluded that ‘the loss of productivity due to noise distraction … was doubled in open-plan offices compared to private offices’.

Kaufman concluded: “On the other hand, companies could simply join another trend — allowing employees to work from home. That model has proven to boost productivity, with employees working more hours and taking fewer breaks. On top of that, there are fewer interruptions when employees work remotely. At home, my greatest distraction is the refrigerator.”

The issue isn't purely black-and-white though. As the Houston Chronicle pointed out, an open-plan office space layout has pros and cons both for a company’s personnel and its bottom line. In an open-plan work environment, there are no distinct rooms or fully enclosed spaces. Instead, workstations are positioned together - sometimes separated by short screens or panels - within one exposed floor plan. The openness may improve communication and collaboration among workers, the Chronicle said, although it could also reduce concentration and productivity.

There are two sets of advantages. The first involves staff. “A lack of walls or other physical barriers in open-plan office spaces makes it easier for employees to interact with each other on a regular basis. The constant intermingling not only generates a sense of camaraderie among personnel, it also enhances the flow of information and teamwork.

“Colleagues can turn to each other for advice or assistance without having to knock on doors or schedule a formal meeting. Interactions in an open-plan office space generally are more frequent and informal than in closed environments where everyone has a separate office space.”

And then, the Chronicle pointed out, there are the business advantages. “The increased collaboration resulting from an open-plan work space can lead to business innovation and advancement. At the same time, an open-plan layout can benefit the business economically by reducing costs tied to construction, utilities and office equipment. For example, fewer walls mean less time and materials required to create the office space.

“Having a single work space also may reduce heating/cooling and electricity expenses thanks to improved flow of air and light. Businesses can save on equipment investment as well, since communal spaces promote shared use of resources, such as printers, copiers and staplers. An open-plan space also provides greater flexibility to accommodate evolving personnel needs.”

PFM spoke to Mark Cooper, chairman of and founder of FM provider, Anabas, regarding the issues with open-plan offices.  A property professional for more than 25 years, Cooper gained a vast amount of client-side experience. Over his career, Cooper has delivered more than 1m sqft of corporate office space for businesses including Pepsi Co, T-Mobile, and Cable & Wireless, before setting up Anabas.

We put the following to Cooper: Office workers are being overwhelmed by distractions at work and this is having a significant impact on personal and business performance. According to new research analysis by Steelcase, distractions and a lack of focus are having a negative effect on productivity, engagement and wellbeing. What role should FMs be playing in this scenario?
 
The level of distraction and the extent to which the ‘always-on’ culture is now impacting our daily lives continues to evolve, with the lowly office now cited as one of the contributing factors to the many distractions of modern life as we now know it, Cooper notes. “Maintaining a healthy equilibrium of collaboration versus distraction is now proving to be one of the big challenges of managing the 21st century workplace.

“Following their exploration of the latest research in neuroscience and their own workplace research, Steelcase have compiled their findings to look at how the working environment can be better designed to improve workers’ conditions for engagement, wellbeing, creativity and innovation, which results in improved business performance. So in relation to this, what role can FMs play in responding to this challenge?”

Cooper says that following the original inception of the large, open-plan office in the mid-‘90s, the office has seen various iterations since, with the current more agile environment being most common, where people are used to the idea of hot-desks and sharing space. “As with any flexible environment, it can often throw up challenges with overcapacity, depending on the number of people using a particular space.

“This supports the debate that the role of the FM should be to ensure the office environment is originally designed and then operated specifically for the organisation using the space. By getting involved at the crucial design stage, FMs can influence practical thinking around the day-to-day use of the space and consider how this will translate for the organisation.”

Etiquette is key, says Cooper – through good communication to educate people on using the space for maximum benefit, this can ensure workspace etiquette is always adhered to. “Better office etiquette reduces unnecessary distractions and makes for a more harmonious space for all. Responding in a proactive, consistent manner and remaining visible will also ensure staff know what to expect and who to turn to if they need help to improve their working environment.”

What is now emerging as a result of this more collaborative approach to workspace management is the rise of the so-called ‘active’ workspace. Many clients are adopting this approach and witnessing success in supporting their businesses to create a better, more productive working environment.

“Whether through the development of new office space, or through the considered design and re-fit of existing space, with the full involvement of facilities teams, this allows them to create a series of different environments throughout the office which create the conditions for certain types of work,” says Cooper.

“While generally combined with a culture of agile working, it’s enabling these organisations to get the best out of people and the investment in the workplace. Supported by a focused FM team, which is completely attuned to the organisation, the workspace and its users’ specific needs, surely this is the best outcome to support maximum return on investment in the workspace and an all-round healthier and happier workforce.”

Meanwhile, Nigel Crunden, a business specialist at Office Depot UK, points out that as we move into the final quarter of 2015, the UK’s productivity gap is still a problem facing many businesses. According to insights gathered by Office Depot UK, a properly managed breakroom facility can provide multiple business benefits including raising productivity levels, increasing revenue and boosting staff wellbeing.

Between June-April this year, output per hour in the UK increased by 0.9%. Despite this being the biggest quarter rise in productivity for four years and although progress is being made, there’s still a huge challenge ahead for the government and businesses to close the UK’s productivity gap.

“In terms of the bigger picture, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate UK businesses are still immersed in an ongoing productivity problem, with the UK’s average output per hour 20% lower than other developed countries such as the US, Germany and France.”

While a company’s output and productivity is influenced by several variables such as staff motivation, the efficiency of working practices and supply management, now is the time for businesses to address the suitability of the working environment for employees head-on.

Many business leaders often overlook the importance of the working environment itself and how it can be scrutinised to improve productivity. Introducing areas such as a breakroom can have several benefits for business performance – operationally and financially.

“Two-thirds of workers admit they don’t take the legally required 20-minute break when their working day exceeds six hours and it shouldn’t come as a surprise how a short uninterrupted break can help increase a worker’s daily output. By offering a separate facility where staff feel they can away from their ‘working parameters’. This encourages employees to take a break but also has the potential to improve concentration, promote wellbeing and increase job satisfaction.”

The space should be seen as multipurpose and may even be turned into a place for idea sharing and holding short meetings as an alternative to the typical boardroom-style surroundings of gathering round a table, says Crunden. “People’s greatest ideas often come when they move out of their normal working environment - by providing employees with a space in which they feel more comfortable, this brings out the best in people.

“Business owners need to approach productivity from a product, service and process point-of-view, and not just focus on how productive individual workers are. Output and productivity are measured by the amount produced by a company per hour against the costs required to keep the business running. The more efficient the organisation, the greater the output.”

To boost profit margins and offset against operating costs, the breakroom also offers a chance for businesses to create a revenue stream and combat against the growing trend of a ‘coffee shop culture’, where staff are turning to the high street in pursuit of higher quality drinks.

In order to prise staff away from coffee shops back to the office breakroom or cafeteria, businesses need to pitch the right price point for hot drinks to ensure there’s also a selection of quality food and snacks on offer. Creating a more attractive in-house offering, means installing more than just a hot water dispenser and providing lattes, cappuccinos and other flavoured drinks.


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