Open-plan offices must be rethought to prevent employees losing focus

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Open-plan offices must be rethought to prevent employees losing focus, finds Haworth

Open-plan offices are "sabotaging" employees' ability to focus at work, while connectivity is leaving them "paralysed" by an oversupply of information, according to research by furniture brand Haworth.

In the second in a new series of articles produced in collaboration with Haworth, we look at why employees lose focus in the workplace, and how it can be avoided.

Haworth's white paper, Designing for Focus Work, states that on average, office workers lose 28 per cent of their productive time due to interruptions and distractions at work. The problem has resulted in employees starting their working days earlier or working late in order to complete tasks that require focus and concentration.

"This challenge isn't new," the white paper states. "Office workers have desired places to focus for decades."

Haworth's research suggests that focus work is the least effectively supported activity in the workplace. In a global survey referenced in the paper, more than half of respondents claimed their employers were not doing a good job of helping them manage overload.

The "overwhelmed employee" is being bombarded by information from hyper-connectivity, leaving them with less time to spend thinking about work and solving problems.

The prevalence of shared, open-plan office spaces has increased significantly in the past decade, gradually replacing cubicles as the standard office layout. While open-plan environments are believed to increase collaboration between staff members and lower real-estate costs, Haworth's paper warns that the costs of open-plan spaces to individual employee performance can outweigh some of the benefits.

"Successful collaboration requires both group efforts and individual focused work," reads the paper. "Switching between these modes of work is really what makes collaboration meaningful and productive."

Higher multitasking equals lower effectiveness

In addition to the visual clutter and noise pollution that employees have to contend with in open-plan work environments, a bombardment of distractions in the form of email notifications, buzzing smartphones, and pop-up alerts are interrupting focus.

When workers attempt to perform two or more tasks simultaneously, even though it may seem like they are accomplishing many things at once, the reality is that, as they task-switch, the longer it takes them to complete all of the tasks, the more mistakes they make, and the more distracted they become.

The paper cites a 2005 study of workers by Mark, Gonzalez, and Harris, which found that it took, on average, 25 minutes for workers to get back to their original task once interrupted, and workers focused on at least two other tasks before resuming the original task.

"Our brains have worked the same way they have for millennia, but now we have all this extra technology and our biology can't keep up with it," says Haworth research specialist Beck Johnson, who contributed to the white paper.

"Multitasking is where technology can be particularly challenging, because with all of the alerts we get, we're in a state where we're conditioning ourselves to be pulled off task and the vast majority of people do not multitask well."

Getting into the flow

Flow – a psychological concept invented by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in the 1970s – is a term that describes a mental state that occurs when we are fully immersed in an activity. Haworth's white paper suggests that work that occurs in an office environment requires both situational awareness and flow.

Johnson explains: "When we start to control attention, our brain is a phenomenal thing – it has the ability to learn what is important for the task at hand and what is unimportant, and it will start to automatically suppress the things that are unimportant."

"Distractions will exist," says the paper, "but our work environments must support focus work instead of creating more barriers to achieving flow."

As part of a research project carried out by Haworth at the Medellin headquarters of Colombian energy giant EPM, 336 EPM employees were asked to assess the impact of new workspace concepts within a pilot space, and compare it to their former office. Working with EPM throughout the project, Haworth helped to define the best strategy to follow when implementing new ways of working.

"The question EPM had was, how could they update their 20 year-old offices and furniture into a vibrant space," explained Haworth research specialist Maria Eugenia Latournerie. "We understood that EPM needed more than just workplace strategy, they needed to go deeper, understand and empathise with employee needs, pains, and gains so the transformation could be holistic."

The pilot project moved two thirds of the employee population from cubicles with high partitions, into cubicles with low panel heights. A variety of collaborative meeting spaces and group social spaces were also added, along with various new technologies for those spaces.

Surveyed before and after the office move, overall the employees reported feeling three per cent more relaxed in the new, shared space and one per cent less frustrated. All in all, there was no significant change in employee performance after the move to the pilot space.

However, there was a steep drop in ratings for how well the new workspace supported focus work – a reduction of 22 per cent. It was found that legibility of space and adjustability of furnishings accounts for as much as 25 per cent of the ability to focus in the workspace.

Focus can be achieved in the open-plan office

Haworth's research indicates that, in order for employees to achieve focus, the workplace needs to provide clearly defined spaces for both collaboration and focus work – a small but effective adjustment.

To complement meeting spaces and collaboration spaces, Haworth advises that companies like EPM need to consider adding small, conveniently located and unassigned "focus" spaces, for employees to use for short periods when the need arises.

At EPM's Medellin headquarters, project leader Diego León Salazar Vargas identified several opportunities for improvement, such as reducing noise levels by installing carpet, and clearly marking traffic routes so that visitors to the floor would not create visual distraction by moving between desks.

In addition to providing the right kind of environment, Haworth suggested that EPM should provide training for employees on more effective workstyles and behaviours when using the new space.

"The underlying theme is instilling a change in people's behaviours," Salazar Vargas told Dezeen. "It is a matter of incorporating a change in the way we make use of the spaces."

He continued: "The most important thing is to get people involved in the process of change, because it is easier when ideas are developed in collaboration with employees rather than imposed upon on them. We did this through workshop sessions with people who were going to populate the pilot floor."

"We are reinforcing new behaviors through an articulated strategy of change, communication and learning, that cannot disappear, because people easily return to old behaviors: insist and persist."

In conclusion, Haworth's white paper proposes a holistic approach to office design, which can be broken down into five principles: variety, choice, control, legibility and recharging.

"There's a huge drop in how well people perform when visual distractions are present," said Haworth research specialist Beck Johnson. "You need to provide people with a variety of spaces where they can choose how to control visual and auditory distractions through workspace features and furnishings. There needs to be room for both collaboration and focus work."

"Legibility is important too – people need to be able to walk into a space and easily create a mental map of it and identify what the purpose of it is," Johnson continued. "When you create clear spaces you are saving on people's cognitive processing, and preserving that energy for people to channel into their work instead of figuring out how to navigate the space."

"Lastly, include 'recharge' spaces," advised Johnson. "When, we're doing concentrated focus work we deplete resources; we get tired, our brains get tired. Our brains do really great stuff when we're not being deliberate about concentrating on something. So recharging is really so very important."

Illustration is by Vesa S.