Here’s Why You Can’t Focus in Your Open Plan Office

Headphones will only get you so far.

Emma Haak
Emma Haak
May 11, 2017 · 3 min read

There’s one thing everyone who works in an open plan office can agree on: it’s really difficult to concentrate in them. Between chatty co-workers, chronic fidgeters and our natural need to know what that group of people gathered in the corner is talking about, focus is hard to come by. Companies are beginning to recognize this problem though, as Sue Shellenbarger writes in Wall Street Journal piece, and they’re implementing changes to fix it.

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San Francisco-based Segment recently moved from a warehouse-like space to an office designed with employees’ focus in mind. The old space had “these long lines of sight across the workspace, where you have people you know and recognize moving by and talking to each other. It was incredibly distracting,” CEO Peter Reinhardt Shellenbarger. Now staffers have more space between their workstations and there are walls and corners to minimize the long sightlines that proved distracting before.

Narrowing how much of the office you can see at any one time helps cut down on what experts call “visual noise,” or movement around the edges of what you’re looking at. Shellenbarger cites Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, saying “unpredictable movements around the edges of a person’s field of vision complete for cognitive resources.” Essentially, when you see something happening out of the corner of your eye, you can’t help but look at it, breaking whatever concentration you had going. Boston Consulting Group took a higher-tech approach to cutting down on visual distractions in it’s new open plan New York City offices. At the request of employees, workstations are outfitted with oversize 34-inch curved computer screens.

There’s also the problem of being within your boss’s eyesight at all times and the effect that has on your work product. In addition to that anxious feeling you get when you think someone important is watching you (even though, in all likelihood, they’re just trying to focus amid the chaos, too), it creates a culture where everyone tries to look busy at all times, even if they’d benefit from taking a break or bouncing ideas off a colleague, Leigh Stringer, a senior workplace expert at EYP Architecture and Engineering in Albany, NY, Shellenbarger.

That may help explain why research by Ethan Bernstein, an assistant professor of leadership and organizational behavior at Harvard Business School found that “teams were 10 percent to 15 percent more productive when they worked behind a curtain that shielded them from supervisors’ view,” Shellenbarger . Bernstein told WSJ that the employees felt they could be more creative with their problem solving when they knew their boss couldn’t see them.

AT&T has taken note of this desire for privacy. The company’s San Ramon, CA, office features 20 Steelcase Brody workstations with privacy screens on three sides, in addition to 66 “focus rooms” that have one desk each.

As the knowledge of what open plan workspaces really do to employees’ ability to focus spreads, hopefully more companies will think carefully about how their space is designed. In the meantime, if you’re in open plan purgatory with no company-wide changes in sight, try ducking into an empty conference room or finding a less-crowded corner of the office when you really need to go head-down on work.

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