Open Office Dilemma: Better Collaboration Without Killing Concentration

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Jan 29, 2015

More and more companies are embracing open office layouts with the goal to improve communication, increase collaboration and cut back on overhead by packing more workers into less space.

In fact, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association.

That’s all well and good. Communication, collaboration, and cost savings are worthy pursuits. Scratching out a competitive edge in today’s economy is harder than ever. Teamwork is essential.

Interruptions waste time AND money

But every change has side effects. Workers in open floor plans are more exposed to interruptions, i.e., Time Bandits (those people who unwittingly steal time by interrupting). They struggle to focus on their own work when activity is unfolding within their hearing and line of sight.

Since the intent of open floor plans is to promote collaboration, it would be ironic if the price of collaboration were a drop in productivity with workers less able to concentrate.

Make no mistake: Interruptions and distractions are not innocuous! Our internal research shows office workers at all levels report losing three to five hours of productive time every day due to unwanted, unneeded, and unproductive interruptions.

According to Basex Research, U.S. companies waste $588 billion annually because of interruptions. Our polls reveal 93 percent of workers say “Yes” when asked if they are “often interrupted” at work and they say 68 percent of those interruptions come from inside the company. Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more interruptions than email or phone calls, according to the Journal of Organizational Studies.

Impact of an open office

When we asked employees how their inability to defend their own time affected them, they said:

  • It reduces my productivity: 66 percent;
  • It reduces my efficiency: 77 percent;
  • I make more mistakes: 41 percent;
  • It creates more stress: 80 percent;
  • It diminishes my job satisfaction: 60 percent.

So the question for companies transitioning to open floor layouts would be, “How to gain collaboration, without losing concentration?”

The fix isn’t a physical one. It’s a matter of changing behavior.

Employees may fear telling the people who steal their time that the interruption is inconvenient. They may think interruptions are not detrimental to their work. They may feel they should be flexible enough to tolerate other people changing their priorities for them.

1. Know the cost

Therefore, before they will take the challenge and be willing to change, they need to realize just how much havoc interruptions cause them personally.

They need to calculate, at the end of a normal day, how many interruptions they had, and how much time those interruptions “stole” from their day. When they do, they are almost always astonished (and horrified) by how much time interruptions steal from them.

So that’s a critical starting point: know the cost.

2. Communicate

The next step is to stare down the fear of deterring a Time Bandit.

That means learning the communications arts and skills necessary for explaining how the worker’s ability to work without interruption also benefits the Time Bandit. That means finding the right words and tone, practicing their delivery, anticipating how the Time Bandit might object and preparing responses to any objections.

3. Time lock

That is how workers sell their Time Bandits on the notion of Time Locking, which means carving out a specified period of time where the worker can work uninterrupted on a high-priority, specific, time-managed task that requires their undivided attention, interrupted only by true emergencies.

4. Focus

Most people struggle with concentration anyway, even without interruptions; an open floor plan exacerbates any “self-interruption” habits.

Fortunately, there are simple steps workers can take to change those behaviors. Many workers go through training so that they can focus (called Focal Locking) regardless of the environment by employing these new, learned behaviors.

Of course, it’s not a one-and-done training event. No behavioral change is. It needs to be managed, practiced, refreshed and reinforced in order to have it embed into the tapestry of their daily lives.

Time Locking should become a coordinated plan of reciprocal events, with workers covering for the Time Locker so that they can get their turn. Managers need to oversee the effectiveness of Time Locks and make sure they are used for appropriate purposes.

When workers in an open office environment find themselves reclaiming hours of time every day once they master these techniques, managers need to make sure that reclaimed time is resourced appropriately and only then will you see improved communication and increased collaboration within your company.