6 August 2015

The Big Productivity-Sucker – Badly Designed Open Plan Offices

If you’ve been following my writing for a while you might have seen comments about the downside of open plan offices for time management, from both me and my readers.

home-office-336378_1280Of course there are some benefits. They include:

  • Cheaper to build. They save walls and expensive floor space  (I haven’t yet met a city corporation that doesn’t want to keep floor space rental as low as possible).
  • They accommodate more people.
  • If well planned, they can look very attractive. Instead of the usual rabbit warren effect there can be a lovely flow of nicely spaced desks, spacious open areas, and a feeling of light and airiness.
  • New staff members quickly get to know everyone.
  • They encourage flexible and improved communication. Any team working collectively on issues finds an open plan layout very useful.

However – there are an awful lot of negatives!

The downsides:

  • Far higher proportion of interruptions – this is the biggie!
  • Longer work hours
  • Easily distracted by others
  • Lower productivity
  • Lack of privacy for confidential conversations
  • Time wasting to find a private space

You might like to do a bit of a survey in your workplace.

Ask people how many times a day they are interrupted for non-important matters.

How many interruptions do you get in the office?

A few people can cope easily with interruptions, but most personality styles are greatly challenged by open plan offices. It’s virtually impossible to keep everyone happy. The gregarious chatterboxes in the company, if left to their own devices, would have a non-stop gabfest. They find it very challenging to remember not to chatter. Their quiet colleagues, on the other hand, just wish everyone would shut up and go away so they can get their work done. Especially if they’re auditory (wired to respond to sound) they find other peoples’ conversation extremely intrusive.

How many times have you heard someone say (or you’ve thought it yourself) ‘I have to come in early, or stay late, to get the real work done. All I do all day is deal with other people’s problems’?

A large financial planning institution shifted some of their people to another floor. In one section of the new level individual space was partitioned off with a combination of chest high walls (when seated) and glass above, going to about 2 metres. Downstairs they were in rows like battery hens. Low partitions separated the rows and each row contained about 20 desks on either side of a long aisle. One staff member reckoned that her productivity had gone up at least 25% once she’d been moved upstairs. Because of the glass walls she could still see what was happening in other parts of the floor, but with noise reduced she was able to focus much better.

Downstairs, one gregarious fellow had to be shifted from the central aisle area to a back corner – he found himself constantly in conversation with the people walking past. His desk showed that his attention was everywhere but on his paperwork.

And what about a hardworking secretary with the misfortune to be seated near the printer or photocopier? Many times I’ve been told this tale of woe! We forget when we stop to chat to someone, whilst we wait for the printer, the photocopier or the kettle to boil, that we’re not just delaying ourselves. The unlucky recipient of our pearls of wit and wisdom sitting near regularly used equipment has a steady stream of people with a minute to ‘spend’ and a story to tell.

Make a change in your office and raise productivity

If you work in an open-plan environment, try logging your activities and all the interruptions for a week. You’ll find an interesting pattern. Also, you might like to ask your colleagues what their preferred working style is.

Read more about Creating an efficient office layout:


 

This article also appears in Robyn’s regular New Zealand Herald Online column


1 thought on “The Big Productivity-Sucker – Badly Designed Open Plan Offices”

  1. Hi Robyn,

    Always good to hear you talking and writing about open plan offices. It’s a real issue here in Christchurch, with only a few brave small businesses bucking the trend.

    Don’t forget, I’m still always keen to join you in any of your presentations, to talk about keeping healthy in the workplace, common issues that occur, money lost for businesses and what we can do to improve this. So, if you’re in the South Island any time, please do get in touch.

    Best Wishes
    Jane

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