About 70 percent of offices in the United States have an open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association (cited by Forbes). The benefits to companies are easy to see: lower real estate costs and more flexible seating in case hiring (or layoffs) pick up. Some employers have even made the argument that open-plan offices improve collaboration, allowing teams to get together with greater ease and speed.
There’s just one problem: workers hate open offices. And, it’s not because they’ve always dreamed of corner-office status or can’t get by without a place to hang their cat calendar.
The biggest issue is that these floor plans are distracting.
Staying Put Might Help Us Retain Information
There are many variations on the open office plan, but perhaps the most distracting might be the “hot desking” model, in which workers move from place to place based on the day’s work.
At the BBC, Bryan Borzykowski explains:
We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings, she says.
These details — which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we’re working on — can only be recalled in that setting.
Too Much Noise Can Also Affect Memory
Even if your company assigns desks, an open floor plan can affect your ability to retain information. Why? Because open offices generally are noisier than those with walls, and too much noise makes it difficult to concentrate and remember.
A 2011 study from the University of Gävle, Sweden placed two groups of students in simulated open-office environments, one with a high volume of noise and one with low. The researchers then asked participants to complete memory-intensive tasks, gauging their stress levels by both physiological measures (e.g. cortisol levels) and self-reports. They found that participants who worked in a high-noise environment “remembered fewer words, rated themselves as more tired, and were less motivated” than those in a low-noise environment.
What Can You Do to Improve Your Focus?
If you’re not a decision-maker at your company, you probably don’t have much say in the seating arrangements. But there are things you can do to give yourself a fighting chance of remembering what you were just working on, five minutes after you’re called away.
One idea comes from the same study mentioned above: researchers found that participants who engaged in a restoration phase with soothing sounds (river sounds, for example) were less stressed and remembered more than those who engaged in a restoration phase filled with noise. You might try to plan your own rest periods into your day, playing soothing music over headphones — or better yet, going for a walk at lunch.
But perhaps the best thing you can do is to recognize that too much time in a noisy, hectic office will impact your ability to concentrate. Do what you can to get away from time to time, whether that’s negotiating for occasional telecommuting privileges or booking yourself the floor’s tiniest conference room for some heads-down working time.
Above all, understand that the problem is with your office, not with you. You’re not absentminded or lacking in focus; your environment is working against you.
Tell Us What You Think
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