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Why Conversation is Destroying Open Office Productivity

Posted on May 17, 2016, by Michael Eckert

While open offices have been designed to encourage collaboration, communication and creativity, poorly designed spaces and poor office etiquette can be a drain on team productivity.

Today I’m looking at how noise is destroying productivity in the open office – and what you can do to improve it.

The Noise Problem

In an open office, noise is the biggest problem that your employees will have to deal with. As well as disrupting people’s focus, high levels of background noise can contribute to increased stress levels among employees.

With no walls to block airborne sound like conversations, or absorb structure-borne noise like foot traffic or chairs scraping on the floor, background noise is a constant distraction in open offices. And the bigger the office, the more background noise your employees have to contend with.

And despite open offices aiming to foster collaborative working, conversation is a particular distraction for others in the office. Studies have shown that workers lose as much as 86 minutes per day being distracted by conversations in the office, and a further study has revealed that one-sided conversations (such as overheard phone calls) are even more distracting.

So what can we do to prevent open office productivity being destroyed by conversation that is a necessary part of collaborative working?

1) Define Different Spaces

While it’s tempting to think of your open office as one continuous space, you may be better off dividing it into zones. Your employees will use their office space for a variety of different purposes throughout their workdays, so if their environment suits their needs, the better their work experience will be.

Dividing the open office into different zones will also help to lessen the impact of noise across the whole office. For example, your employees will have five typical ‘zonal’ requirements during their workday:

  • Private spaces for 1-on-1 conversations
  • Team meeting spaces
  • Breakout areas for informal collaboration
  • Communal space for socialising, eating etc.
  • Normal, head-down work space

Your employees will know that if they want to have a chat there’s a better space to do that than at their desks, which will lessen the impact that their conversation will have on their colleagues’ productivity.

2) Design for Sound Insulation

You may think that noise is the price you have to pay for an open workspace that inspires creativity. But with a few design changes you can make dramatic reductions in ambient noise levels, to help you boost office productivity:

  • Open cell cushion-backed carpet absorbs 50% more sound than hard-backed carpet, which in turn absorbs three times more noise than hard surface flooring. So while wooden floors may have the wow factor you want, you might want to opt for carpet instead, for the sake of your employees’ productivity levels.
  • Acoustic-insulating wall and ceiling tiles can help to reduce overall office noise levels, by absorbing more sound compared with standard wall and ceiling tiles.
  • Soft furnishings, such as sofas in your breakout area, or upholstered desk chairs, all absorb sound better than hard surfaces like wooden desks or benches. Plus, they have the added benefit of creating a more comfortable working environment.

3) Include Open and Closed Spaces

Open offices are perfect for encouraging collaboration and building strong relationships between colleagues, but it’s important to also provide private spaces for employees to use when needed.

A cluster of meeting rooms around the edge of your open office space would give employees a space for small meetings, private phone calls, or just to work quietly for an hour away from noise and interruptions. This provides the option of quiet and privacy, but without doing away with the open office environment and sacrificing the opportunity for collaboration and creativity that it inspires.

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Topics: Health & Wellness

Michael Eckert

Written by Michael Eckert