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Is Noise the Real Enemy of Productivity (And the end of Open Plan)?

Is Noise the Real Enemy of Productivity (And the end of Open Plan)

Open plan studies are placing too much emphasis on collaboration and not focusing enough on the real cause of worker inefficiency, noise, according to the latest data from Unispace.

The study by the global workplace experts shows that firms are erroneously introducing open plan working environments believing that they will enhance staff productivity.  In fact, Unispace’s research shows that many companies are overestimating the amount of time that they need to spend in meetings and “collaborating” while underestimating the time for tasks requiring concentration.

The survey data was founded upon research with more than 2,000 occupiers of office space across four different continents.  Each region and service threw up its own particular requirements for space depending on work function, but distraction caused by noise was a continual theme.

Sam Sahni, Regional Principal Strategy for EMEA at Unispace, said: “I would challenge the premise of the thinking that open plan workplace solutions are introduced to increase workplace collaboration. For some organisations that may be the case, however the origination of open plan solution is rooted in the effort to rein in real estate costs. Open plan layout is the most efficient space planning solution when calculating real estate densities (desks/sq. ft.).

“Our data shows that on average, two hours per employee per day face to face collaboration is a reasonable amount to be effective. Of course, there are anomalous periods. However, organisations that plan for the more than the two hour average are unknowingly facilitating an overly-collaborative environment that is potentially disruptive for individuals and the business.”

The Unispace study shows that those firms that tend to “over-collaborate” i.e. spend too much time in meetings, usually have environments that create barriers between different teams and departments – in effect creating silos.

“Over-collaboration is not intentional but a ‘boiling frog syndrome’. Conversely, Employees working beyond walls often state a fear of missing out (FOMO),” explained Sam Sahni.  “Firms where this is happening need to re-assess employee feedback on their ability to focus, the cause of distractions and other factors that will diminish future productivity.”

The three main reasons that companies set out to change their workplace is better collaboration, employee attraction and retention and cost savings, according to Unispace research.  And these numbers are broadly consistent across the US, EMEA and Asia-Pacific.  However, the need for focus and concentration is not cited by clients as a key reason to change the office.

In fact, based on Unispace data, the industry may have underestimated the value of focus-based work and its physiological impact on satisfaction and productivity. Effective collaboration is important, but not at the cost of focus. With a number of working tasks requiring concentration, the obvious benefit of a balanced and choice led environment should mean increased productivity.

According to data, workers in Professional Services firms spent most of their time in a typical working day in activities that required focus and concentration (66%), with those in the US spending higher amount time concentrating (75%). Those in banking and finance spent 60% of their time concentrating. Technology sector workers spent the least amount of time focusing (55%).

The level of collaboration across the most popular professions was relatively static averaging only a quarter of the working day – 21% in professional services, 28% in technology roles and 25% in technology.  In all three of these professional sectors, more than 2/3 of the working day was devoted to tasks requiring concentration and less than 10% of time for “socializing”.  Workers in technology spent slightly more time “learning” within the workplace – on average 8% of their day compared to just 5% in professional services sector.

Unsurprisingly, given their need for focus-related tasks, an average of 20% of professional services around the world rated their workplace “poor” for supporting work tasks that require concentration. This was particularly the case in the US and Australia.  This compares to less than 10% of technology workers who rated their workspace poor for focus-based tasks and they were the most satisfied in this way with an average of 70% rating their workspace “good” for concentrating.

In terms of ranking the top five inefficiencies in the workplace, all three professional disciplines rated noise in the top 2 problems with a lack of quiet areas also cited.  In both professional services and the technology professions they also rated privacy as being a third key concern in the workplace.

“I think we profoundly underestimate the issue of sound in the workplace and the disruptive impact it has on the ability to be productive during the working day,” explains Sam Sahni. “So much of the dissatisfaction around the modern office is centred around the negative impact of the open plan office.

“Many workers are of course trying to escape the tyranny of the noisy workplace by working from home or isolating themselves with noise-cancelling headphones, both of which for me represent the failure of so many ill-judged designs.  I think that some of the biggest gains in the ability of workers to effectively perform their roles is creating a balanced and considered environment that allows them to get the job in hand done.”

Sam’s advice to companies that are concerned about the disruption created by noise is to:

  • There are many solutions out there. Choice isn’t just limited to enclosed offices or open plan arrangement
  • Companies must consider what activities employees are undertaking. The variety of activities require a variety of environments
  • Address the causes of noise in the new design solutions. People walking past desks, people interrupting, phones ringing, noisy individuals etc are sources of noise. How does the design of workplace limit some of these?
  • Spent effort training people for space. Behaviours and protocols are very important.
  • Serendipitous interaction is important, But too much of it and you have gone backwards.
  • Empowering users is important. With fixed desk as the only space to do work and managing people by sight will result in unsatisfied workforce
  • Solutions should vary by organisation, sector, geography, user appetite and business objectives. Spaces provide mental constructs within which employees operate. Just because it worked for someone else, doesn’t guarantee it will work for your organisation.

Sam Sahni advised: “We strongly recommend organisations to find the time and effort to carry out engagement led data collection prior to agreeing a future direction for their workplace environments. Pre-implementation intelligence is key to ensure that your people and property cost centres click together.  Also, let’s not forget about being human centric in workplace projects. It is equally important to prepare people for space, not just space for people.

For more information on the pitfalls of open plan working click here

Global Banking & Finance Review


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