Is noise the real enemy of productivity (and the end of open plan)?

Unispace survey of more than 2,000 global occupiers shows that firms are erroneously introducing open plan working environments believing that they will enhance staff productivity. In fact, it shows that many companies are overestimating the amount of time that they spend in meetings and “collaborating” while underestimating time required for concentration.

The survey data was split across four different continents and across different sectors. Distraction caused by noise was a continual theme across each of them.

I 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.

Our data clearly shows that on average, two hours per employee per day face to face collaboration is a reasonable amount to be effective. Organisations that plan for the more than the two-hour average are unknowingly facilitating an overly-collaborative environment that is potentially disruptive.

Those firms that tend to ‘over-collaborate’ usually have environments that create barriers between different teams and departments, thereby creating silos. Over-collaboration is not intentional but ‘boiling frog syndrome’.

The three main reasons that companies set out to change their workplace is better collaboration, employee attraction/retention and savings. This is broadly consistent across each region.

However, the need for focus and concentration is not cited by clients as a key reason to change.

This leads me to conclude that our industry may have underestimated the value of focus-based work and its impact on productivity.

Effective collaboration is important, but not at the cost of focus. With a number of working tasks requiring concentration, there is an obvious benefit to a balanced, choice-led environment.

I should be clear that when we say ‘open plan’ that we specifically refer to a one-form open plan configuration ie, a sea of desks as far as the office-bound eye can see with no break.

Open plan without different forms of space to interrupt the rows of desks does not support privacy in the workspace and fails to support individuals pursuing alternative modes of working mode. There must be a variety of spaces to support the ability to focus and lend concentration to a specific task.