How to make open-plan offices more productive

Open offices aim to spur collaboration and innovation but often have exactly the opposite effect. Here’s how to harness their lost promise of productivity.

How to make open-plan offices more productive
fizkes / Getty Images

IT organizations have embraced open office plans to drive cost savings and flexibility and to increase collaboration and productivity. But some IT employees say open office plans are having exactly the opposite effect.

“Honestly, it’s a nightmare, and I hate it,” says one senior system engineer with a global publishing company who wished to remain anonymous. “It’s chaotic. It’s frustrating. I can’t get away to get done what I need to; I either end up working very late to take advantage of when everyone else goes home, or I work from home.”

It’s a common complaint. According to a recent survey from Future Workplace and unified communications company Poly, the No. 1 problem workers have with open office plans is the noise — and resulting distractions — caused by coworkers, says Jeanne Meister, founding partner of Future Workplace.

Nearly all (99 percent) of the more than 5,000 employees surveyed report they get distracted while working at their personal workspace; 51 percent say the distractions make it difficult to listen to or be heard while on calls and 48 percent say their ability to focus is negatively impacted. Seventy-six percent of respondents blame their coworkers — whether that person is talking loudly on the phone or just having a conversation nearby.

Not surprisingly, millennials and Gen Z are more tolerant of these distractions than their Gen X and Baby Boomer counterparts. According to the survey, the younger workers are, the more they prefer an open workplace floor plan, with more Gen Z (55%) and Millennials (56%) in favor of open offices compared to Gen X (47%) and Baby Boomers (38%).

“Millennials and Gen Z, being digital natives, are used to this kind of environment, and they’ve figured out ways to block the noise and mitigate the distractions,” says Meister. But “with four generations now in the workplace together, IT organizations have to figure out how to address the needs of all of these groups.”

To continue reading this article register now

Get the best of CIO ... delivered. Sign up for our FREE email newsletters!