I have to admit that when I worked in an office that open plan offices were not for me. And after a decade of working from home most of the time, I could think of nothing worse than working in a borderless office where every phone call, the smell of other people's lunch and random walk-by got in the way of my flow. But, it turns out I might be an out-rider - at least based on a new study from Future Workplace commissioned by Plantronics.
The study surveyed over 5000 people at organisations of different sizes from US, Canada, Spain, UK, Germany, France, China, Australia and New Zealand, Japan, and India between March 18th – 26th, 2019 and targeted employees who work three days minimum in a corporate office environment. It found more than half of workers across Australia and New Zealand prefer open plan offices over privacy-oriented floor plans, with 81% saying this working style is important to their productivity and engagement.
But that result seems counter-intuitive with virtually all (99%) employees report being distracted while working with more than one in ten report ‘always’ being distracted and almost a third saying they get distracted ‘very often’. Half of ANZ respondents said that distractions make phone calls a pain in the butt, as well as making it challenging to focus.
Of course, with the study coming from Plantronics, a company that make headphones and telephone headsets, the survey found headphones are the leading choice for workers looking to avoid distraction. But 28% of affected workers look for quieter places to work.
The research found some clear generational differences when it comes to workplace preferences. More than half of Gen Z respondents say they are most productive when they are working around noise or talking with others, while 60% of Baby Boomers say they’re most productive when it’s quiet. About four in ten Gen Z and Millennials relocate to comfortable spaces such as a couch or cushioned chairs to work. On the flipside, more than half of Baby Boomers only work at their primary workspace.
Three times as many Boomers than Gen Z workers admit to not finding a solution to their open office distractions.
The biggest take away is that workers say they can see the benefits of open plan offices with the ability to communicate and collaborate. But I wonder how much of that is simply the result of people being told open plan offices are great for collaboration and communication. A recent study we looked at last year found that the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased by about 70% when the walls and boundaries were removed from offices.
The reality is that open plan offices are more about packing more people into a space than really fostering better collaboration and communication.
And that, perhaps, is why this study also revealed that nearly three in four people would work in the office more – and be more productive – if employers would do more to reduce workplace distractions. Respondents said distractions could be minimised with better technology and the elimination of background noise. That can be achieved by establishing quiet spaces or zones, setting guidelines on appropriate noise levels and changing the office layout and allowing for flexible work arrangements.