Smarter Working

Unproductive at Work? Your Open Office May Be Why

Built to spur collaboration, unintended consequences are cropping up in open layouts.

Shortly after a technology company in Austin, Texas, moved to a gleaming new open office, it turned to time-management consultant Maura Thomas for advice on how to boost productivity. Colleagues complained of distractions and noise. Almost immediately, it became clear to Thomas that the brand-new workspace was a big part of the problem.

The onslaught of open-office layouts has made creating a productive and, ironically, collaborative workspace all the more difficult. About 70% of offices in the United States now have some form of an open layout, according to the International Facility Management Association. In a recent study on companies that adopted open offices, workers spent 73% less time in face-to-face interactions, and email use rose 67%. “When office architecture makes everyone more observable or transparent, it can dampen face-to-face interactions as employees find other strategies to preserve their privacy,” the researchers wrote.

About 70% of US offices now have some form of an open layout.

“Open offices were meant to spark innovation and creativity by bringing people together,” says Mark Royal, a senior director at Korn Ferry, whose work focuses on employee engagement. “But from an experience perspective, it’s been a mixed bag.”

The tech firm Thomas consulted didn’t move locations after dropping millions of dollars on the site. But it did spring for a set of noise-canceling headphones for each employee, and wearing them became a universal “please don’t distract me” symbol, Thomas says. Here are some other strategies, beyond headphones, to cope with common problems in open offices.

Drown the distractions.

Distraction is the most common complaint against open offices, according to a survey by enterprise software strategist William Belk. It’s a natural consequence, because you’re hearing half a phone conversation and maybe a bit of a meeting while trying to concentrate on writing a report. “You cannot predict when the person’s voice is going to start and stop, and so it keeps drawing your attention,” says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and author of Smart Thinking.

Before you go into fixer mode, first try and establish some norms with your colleagues. If everyone knows, for example, that if a call is going to last more than 15 minutes, it should take place in a remote area, people can adjust expectations of disruption. “Just agreeing on some basic norms can prevent conflict or awkward situations from arising,” Royal says.

Once norms are established, you can go about finding other solutions depending on what distracts you. For some, a simple white-noise machine could provide enough cover. Companies sometimes will install heavy curtains throughout the office or roll out carpets to help with noise reverberations. You can also ask to move desks or work from home, if the distractions become irreconcilable.

Stop prying eyes.

After a media company in Atlanta moved into a refurbished warehouse (by the train tracks, no less), Laura and her coworker found the lack of privacy difficult to work around, not to mention the presence of a nosy colleague who seemed to always comment on whatever was on their desks. But after a trip to Ikea to buy frond-shaped children’s bed canopies (which they affixed to their cubicle walls) and lamps for soft lighting, the two colleagues created comfortable cocoons that helped give them more privacy. Some of their colleagues lined plants along their desks to create boundaries. 

Squelch the stink.

More employees are opting to eat lunch at their desks, with studies showing only one in five people actually step away from their desk to eat. And in an open-office atmosphere, that’s a recipe for disaster, or at least for some offensive odors. While it’s best to step out for a quick bite—research shows it’s quite restorative for workers—if you have to eat in your cubicle, avoid hot foods, whose smells waft more than cold lunches, and particularly pungent bites such as tuna and kimchi. If your colleague is slurping down something particularly malodorous, keep mint tea on hand. Even if you don’t drink it, the tea bag may provide a less offensive smell to clear the air.

Stave off sickness.

Does it ever feel like you’re getting sick from work all the time? Well, you probably are. A Danish study found workers in open offices had 50% more sick days compared to workers who had their own offices. So, the next time you’re sick, do work from home, and encourage your coworkers to do the same. If they don’t, be sure to keep an economy-size bottle of hand sanitizer on your desk.

take our career resiliency quiz
take our career resiliency quiz