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Having trouble focusing at work? You’re not alone. As open-plan offices get re-evaluated, the newest paradigm favours solitude as much as face-to-face collaboration.

If ever there was a sign that the open-office trend has gone awry, it is this: A few years ago, Steelcase teamed up with Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, to create a line of modular work rooms with the tag line “Empowering Introverts.”

The so-called Susan Cain Quiet Spaces – with names like Flow, Be Me and Mind Share – are designed to be plunked down in the midst of an open office, providing refuge via natural wood, soft, customizable lighting, Lagunitas lounge sofas and, perhaps most importantly, soundproofing technology that “offers an atmosphere where introverts can work their best.” In other words, the walls will blessedly block out not just prying eyes, but also the ringtone/photocopier/This Is Us-recap/sales-call cacophony of the typical office environment.

Mind Share by Steelcase.

Meg O’Neil, a design manager at Steelcase’s headquarters in Grand Rapids, Michigan, says the company sees “tremendous opportunity” in designing modular antidotes to open offices, since so many of these workspaces were designed without “necessarily thinking about the holistic needs of people working there on a daily basis.” Indeed, when O’Neil and her colleagues walk through the typical office, “we see a lot of workarounds,” she says. You’ve likely seen them, too: workers, desperate for privacy, hunkered behind filing cabinets or perched on bathrooms sinks, whispering into their iPhones. Or row upon row of people with noise-cancelling headphones clamped over their ears – the modern-day equivalent of the do-not-disturb sign (which most people ignore anyway).

More than 70 per cent of those in the U.S. now work in open-plan offices, according to the International Facility Management Association. Yet, studies proving these environments are bad for us have been piling up for more than a decade. All of them point to negative impacts on productivity and mental and physical health – not to mention the bottom line. Employees consistently put noise and lack of privacy at the top of the grievance list. The design firm Gensler, which surveys thousands of workers annually across the United States, has found that 77 per cent of them crave quiet time during the workday, and 69 per cent are dissatisfied with noise levels. Furniture manufacturer Haworth has arrived at similar conclusions, along with the discovery that workers are losing up to 28 per cent of their productive time due to interruptions and distractions. It can take more than 20 minutes to refocus on the task at hand, which means we’re losing as much as 86 minutes per day, per employee, due to noise distraction alone.

Open-plan workers are unhealthier, too. Excessive noise raises blood pressure and stimulates the nervous system to release stress hormones. Factor in the unimpeded flow of airborne germs and these employees take 62 per cent more sick leave than those who work in enclosed offices.

So how did we get to a place where going to work is literally making us sick, not to mention rendering us nearly incapable of getting stuff done? There’s an argument to be made that it began with Herman Miller. In 1964, one of the company’s designers, Robert Propst, created the Action Office to give workers – most of whom toiled in open-plan bullpens like the ones we have today – more control over their workday. The Action Office was adjustable and flexible, allowing occupants to shift seamlessly between head-down work and collaborating with colleagues. But in 1968, Herman Miller began allowing companies to pick and choose modular elements of Propst’s design and, naturally, they gravitated to the cheapest one: the walls. Cubicles mutated – or, rather, they ceased mutating. They became synonymous with conformity, with mind-numbing, soul-killing drudgery. “The cubiclizing of people in modern corporations is monolithic insanity,” Propst said in despair not long before he died, in 2000.

It took the dot-com boom to revive open-plan offices. Tearing down cubicle walls became a symbol of collaboration, agility and innovation. But it’s no coincidence that the concept took off among cash-strapped start-ups. After all, open offices allow companies to cram more people into fewer square feet, and can cost 50 per cent less than traditional layouts.

Larger companies seized on the trend, too, with little thought for the consequences. A lawyer at a large Canadian corporation recalls being evicted from her private office and installed at a tiny desk with no barriers between her and hundreds of colleagues. She was often forced to conduct legal business on her private mobile phone in some unoccupied nook of the building, lest she breach confidentiality. Eventually, the stress grew so acute that she quit.

Rooms for solo work and personal conversations are becoming a more common feature in the office landscape. At the Adobe office in London, Gensler added sound-blocking rooms with just one desk and a chair. PHOTO: Mark Cocksedge

“The ultimate goal was really cost reduction,” says Lisa Fulford-Roy, head of workplace strategy in eastern Canada for the giant commercial real estate firm CBRE. “But they didn’t really understand the impact of design and physical environment on day-to-day experience, and how that can translate to levels of engagement and productivity.”

Of course, there are tangible benefits to cramming a bunch of employees with similar or complementary skills into one place and forcing them to interact. “We know people who collaborate face to face have higher trust levels and can actually get to solutions faster,” says Fulford-Roy. That’s precisely why, in 2013, Yahoo’s then-CEO Marissa Mayer reversed the company’s long-standing policy of allowing employees to work from home – the lack of impromptu brainstorming sessions and random connections was killing creativity.

The key is to strike a balance between face time and privacy, and to give employees the power to choose how much of either one they require and when. “We know that one size fits no one,” says Fulford-Roy. “We are so acclimatized to customizing and curating everything we do; the ability to do that in the workplace is critical.”

Gensler has identified four main “work modes” throughout the day: collaborating, focusing, learning and socializing. Some require privacy and some don’t. The most innovative companies understand this and, as Gensler has found, are five times more likely to prioritize both individual and group spaces, balancing focus and collaboration.

L’Oréal’s New York office, also by Gensler, offers employees areasfor casual collaboration and socializing. Carpeting and sound-absorbing ceiling treatments help to reduce background noise and travelling voices. PHOTO: Garrett Rowland

Putting this insight into practice means building “an ecosystem of different environments,” says Annie Bergeron, a design principal at Gensler who focuses on technology, media and financial services companies. These environments might include a desk that acts as an employee’s home base, focus pods for head-down or confidential work, stand-up stations to boost energy, meeting rooms for collaboration, and dynamic cafés and lounge areas for socializing or simply soaking up the buzz.

“Choice,” says Fulford-Roy, “is extraordinarily empowering” – and so much simpler than it would have been two decades ago, when employees were still tethered to their desks by landlines and cumbersome computers. Indeed, Fulford-Roy points out, CBRE has found that desks are sitting empty between 40 and 50 per cent of the time. “It’s not because people are not at work, but because the way we’re working is much more mobile.”

Social zones are just as essential as private areas. The trick is to find a balance. The Shanghai apparel brand UOOYAA’s office is located inside an old factory, and its large spaces can be used in multiple ways, including for fashion runway events and parties. PHOTO: Zhang Daqi

There’s additional benefit to encouraging employees to wander around, says Christopher Liu, an assistant professor of strategy at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “Having very broad networks is critical to information flow. [These environments] produce better ideas.”

Take the U.S. Senate, which Liu has studied extensively. Senators serve a six-year term, and every two years their desks are unbolted and moved to a different location on the Senate floor. Liu found that moving just 10 metres closer to a fellow senator increased by seven per cent the likelihood that the two would support each other’s initiatives. “If anybody understands the benefit of having a broad network,” says Liu, “it’s these elite politicians.”

The good news is, companies can make these kinds of tweaks to their office geography relatively easily. “This is something you can use to drive operational performance and the bottom line without any cost,” says Liu. “It’s pure profit.”

Designing the office of the future takes planning, however. “Organizations are in flux, and it’s easiest, often, to just throw down a master plan,” says Liu. But that’s a mistake.

PHOTO: Zhang Daqi

One of Bergeron’s clients recently moved from a traditional office to one with no assigned desks (not even for top executives) and with universal technology interfaces so employees could remain plugged into the workflow no matter where they were. Before it undertook the project, Bergeron’s team had employees fill out lengthy questionnaires and spent hours on-site observing their work habits. Then it launched a pilot program to test for potential snags. Without this kind of “robust change management,” says Bergeron, there’s a good chance your employees will revolt, no matter how slick the new space. “You need a workplace strategy to properly assess how different teams within the same organization need to work,” she says. “Spaces become end-user-defined.”

For instance, one division – say, accounting – might require a high degree of focus and should therefore be stationed in a quiet zone, with access to lots of meeting rooms and lounge areas for sporadic collaboration. Conversely, groups where employees talk to one another all day long – like Bergeron’s own marketing team – might happily occupy louder, more central areas, with anyone in need of quiet time able to seek out a private room.

For the L.A. advertising agency Canvas Worldwide, New York architects A+I used dichroic glass partitions to create separate rooms within an otherwise open workspace. The colourful glass walls demarcate boardrooms and meeting spaces that are suited for concentrating on specific tasks. PHOTO: Michael Wells

Reducing friction is key. There are plenty of examples of companies who had the right idea but failed in the execution. A few of the more common blunders include using cheaper materials in open areas (which can cause sound to ping and reverberate) and building so-called private rooms that aren’t actually soundproof. Another big one is building too few meeting rooms or focus pods. The idea, says O’Neil, is to create enough private spaces that people can duck into them for 20 minutes or four hours without having to book in advance or worry about ticking off other privacy-seekers.

The faster companies understand the need for a diversity of spaces, the better. Never has the global war for talent been quite so fierce, and ensuring your office – rather than the local Starbucks – is the most inspirational place for employees to be is a powerful tool for both attracting and retaining the best and brightest. Bergeron had one client whose job acceptance rate went from 50 per cent to 93 per cent in the wake of an office revamp. It’s not just the slickness of the design that counts, however – according to Bergeron, employees want work environments that offer a choice between focus and inspiration. And that holds true regardless of age. Gensler has found there’s no difference between millennials and older generations in terms of embracing flexible, technology-enabled offices. “It’s more what you do that drives your space needs,” she says, “not how old you are.”

PHOTO: Zhang Daqi

In the end, it comes down to balance. “The busier our lives get, the more the workplace needs to support some of my personal life,” says O’Neil. “Sometimes I need to call my kid’s pediatrician or take a call from the school in the middle of the day, just [as] at home I’m taking work calls at 10 p.m.”

In the meantime, O’Neil and other designers will continue to feed the market with modular workarounds like Quiet Spaces. These might be stop-gap solutions, but at least no one on the outside can hear you scream.

The Problem with Open-Plan Offices (and How to Fix it)

Having trouble focusing at work? You’re not alone. As open-plan schemes get re-evaluated, the newest paradigm favours solitude as much as face-to-face collaboration.

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