When you think of a “modern” office, what comes to mind? Chances are, you aren’t imagining grey-walled cubicles or a big oak desk in the corner office. To most people, the workplace of the future has a sleek, minimalistic design and is brimming with technology. But most importantly, it has an open working space with the walls dividing team members torn down. In other words: an open office.
It’s clear that the landscape of the traditional office has changed drastically. According to the International Management Facility Association, over 70 percent of U.S. companies have established an open office layout. Both the largest tech companies in the world and the smallest startups alike have pioneered this shift. And you don’t have to look very hard to find experts lauding their effectiveness in encouraging collaboration and creativity.
However, amid this near-universal praise, open offices present a unique set of challenges. Internal research by Steelcase shows the number of people who say they can’t concentrate at their desk had increased by 16 percent since 2008 when open offices began to gain prominence. In a fluid environment, employees are surrounded by the endless phone calls and background chatter of their coworkers making it increasingly hard to focus. The bottom line is that although wide open offices allow groups to bounce ideas off of each other any time of the day, that same benefit is also a distraction to other employees who need quiet time to work.
Despite this downside, I doubt that anyone is in a rush set those old walls back up. The truth is that open offices are unquestionably a bonus for promoting collaboration. But no matter how far we have come, there are always further steps we can make to boost productivity while balancing the needs of the team.
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Getting the Best of Both Worlds
One way to fight the distractions of an open space, while still allowing for collaboration, is to establish zones of silence within an office. When college students need to study before an exam, they don’t hit the books where the party is going on. Instead, they go to the library and find a quiet nook where they can focus. Our workplaces can offer a similar option by having library-like areas that minimize distractions. There is no shortage of innovative furniture options—like pods, phone booths and sheltered alcoves—that not only serve this purpose, but also keep your office look magnificently modern, while maximizing efficiency.
We all need to block out distractions at times, so team members of all stripes benefit tremendously from access to these private “no-fly” zones. Having discreet and designated areas allow them to can step out of the bustle of the office when necessary, so when crunch-time has passed, they can return to a more stimulating shared space to benefit from team collaboration and creativity.
Engage: How can your office’s physical space accommodate different styles of work?