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By Francis Wade

Wednesday, March 26, 2014.

If you sit in a wide-open office each day, struggling to stay focused amid multiple distractions, you have a right to complain.

Research is showing that these environments are ruining your productivity.

It reverses old thinking. Not so long ago, the argument was being made that open bullpens were better because they fostered teamwork.

No one could hide, and everyone would benefit from the serendipity of chance conversations.

Or at least, that was how it was explained to me when I took a job in an open office several years ago.

Perhaps it was no accident that it was much, much cheaper to herd everyone into open pits than it was to give them individual offices. Now it appears the costs we thought were being saved are far less than the productivity that's lost.

Recent studies referenced in Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Time Magazine all tell the same tale: an employee's ability to focus is harmed by such environments due to the proliferation of visual and auditory distractions.

An employee who can't get work done, or gets it done more slowly, is far more costly than the handful of dollars to be saved from lower partitions.

If employees in your company are motivated to do great work, then it's up to managers to give them the environment they need to be effective.

Start by observing your most valuable and engaged employees. If they are coming in early, leaving late and doing work from home or on weekends, it's probably a sign that your work environment has turned into a mass of chaos.

Here's how to fix it without spending a fortune, based on the concept of the state of 'flow', discovered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

1. Promote Quiet, Flow Time

Some employees use headphones - with or without music - to stop others from interfering. Others build up stacks of paper to block out unwanted visual distractions.

It's not necessarily antisocial behaviour; they might be doing it to stay in the flow state, where they are at their most productive.

According to Csikszentmihalyi, it takes 20 minutes to return to this state after it's disrupted. If your environment is a source of continuous interruptions, it's making employees unproductive.

The best thing you can do as a manager is reduce human interference to a minimum, including those you induce. Save your hot inspirations for later, when employees aren't doing their best work.

Also, create an environment in your office in which people learn what the flow state is and why it needs to be preserved. Simple awareness can make a tremendous difference, especially among managers and executives whose employees should be telling them 'not now', but don't because they are afraid.

2. Provide Quiet Spaces

Some companies try to compensate for the open chaos by procuring meeting rooms, which are a good start. Often, however, they aren't enough because employees also need quiet, individual spaces so they can stay focused.

If that expense is too high, then get creative. Invite employees to use manager's offices when they aren't present or the cafeteria when it's not in use. Whatever is needed to give them the five basic tools they need - four walls and a door.

3. Encourage Working From Home

When I was an employee in the United States, there was a phrase that we would use: 'Staying at home to get work done'. We all knew what that meant: a day of work away from unnecessary meetings and distractions was likely to be a day when a lot of hard, high-quality work could be completed.

Your employees might be able to do their best work - and more of it - from home. There's no commute and if they understand the flow state, they can set up their own environment that's free of distractions. If this is the case, empower them to do so by trusting them to make the most of the opportunity.

Unfortunately, there are some managers I meet who try to convince me that I don't understand their workers: 'dem different'. They are convinced that their workers cannot be trusted, and that low walls are a requirement ... so they can spy.

I always ask the obvious questions: Were they always demotivated? If they were, why did you hire them? If not, what did you do to ruin their motivation?

Perhaps it's time to rebuild the trust that's been broken. Studies show that employees respond best to a combination of autonomy, purpose, and mastery. They can all be restored, and one way to do so is to respect their productive capacity by removing physical obstacles.

Restoring your faith in their ability to be productive might be a positive step.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. He can be reached at columns@fwconsulting.com



Wide-Open offices May be Bad for Productivity

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