Does The “Open Office” Layout Close The Door On Optimal Productivity?

September 2017

Four walls, a door, window, and a desk of your very own: these four seemingly trivial items that make up the “traditional office” have come to be a luxury that most business professionals can only dream about.  Since the 1960s, the corporate office environment in the United States has undergone a shift that now heavily favors the “open office” workspace for a large majority of employees.  The layout of the open office typically is one where an otherwise empty space is filled with either 1) cubicles and/or partial wall partitions or 2) tables/desks and chairs to be shared communally often with no real designation of assigned seating.  With this shift came a new set of related challenges for countless individuals in the business world.  An additional layer of challenges and complexity related to open office space is present in certain fields that center on providing services to businesses on site at their physical location, including healthcare IT consultants.  The typical stressors that accompany this field are well known and most often are attributed to weekly airplane travel, hotel living, and long hours Monday-Thursday to make the most out of time spent “on site” with a client.  By nature, the job description of most, however not all, healthcare IT consultants are for a fixed duration.  Due to this fact, very rarely will a healthcare IT consultant arrive at each and every one of their clients and have a traditional office waiting for them to use all by themselves.  This may not be the case for interim leadership positions or program managers, but largely it rings true.  What more commonly happens is either a shared space of a meeting or conference room will be designated for a group of consultants to use or the consultant will get assigned their own cubicle, often in the organization’s IT department.  Many in the field have come to relish the prospect of getting their very own cubicle for the duration of an assignment, as having designated desk space and a readily available electrical outlet is more valuable than most things money can buy.  However, when thinking about the high stakes of the typical type of work the majority of healthcare professionals undertake, it begs the question for healthcare IT consultants: are the stressors caused by certain office space layouts being given a hard enough look?  Has the industry as a whole overlooked the undeniable effects of having an office workspace conducive to producing the necessary high caliber work that is required in this demanding field? 

This particular area of discussion, although applicable to a large majority of business professionals out there, is principally important in the consulting realm because a consultant’s office space is ever-changing and the assuring factor of consistency is removed from the equation, especially when regularly being assigned to shorter projects.  A consultant could have upwards of 12 different clients in a 12-month span, resulting in 12 unique workspaces in just one year.  Additionally, there seems to be a culturally based assumption that these types of environmental stressors do not affect the more seasoned professionals in the field.  It is often said that a true “road warrior” has learned how to rise above it.  But is this really the case?  This inquiry is not meant to cast a shadow of a doubt on the fact that working in shared workspaces both periodically and intentionally is a very valuable collaborative tool that should be utilized in most professions.  Rather this line of questioning is geared towards the group of individuals that are subjected to continually working in open office workspaces regardless of the task or end goal at hand.  This group consists of business professionals who 1) are aware of their struggles with this environment, 2) assume this environment is working fine for them but are unknowingly underperforming and creating more work after hours and 3) are immune to the effects of this environment.  Based on both experience and research, it appears the number of individuals in the first two categories heavily outweigh the last, making this a very relevant topic for most.

Job stress is not only an epidemic but also extremely costly.  According to The American Institute of Stress, stress carries a “price tag” of over $300 billion each year in the United States alone.1   It does not require much of a leap to draw the conclusions on how the new norm of the open office workspace is contributing to that figure.  A research study conducted by Jungsoo Kim and Richard de Dear at the University of Sydney determined that “[d]istraction by noise and loss of privacy were identified as the major causes of workspace dissatisfaction in open-plan office layouts.”2   In response to probably the most commonly purported benefit of open office spaces, being ease of collaboration, the study concluded “…overall workspace satisfaction due to the positive impact of ease of interaction in open-plan office layouts failed to offset the decrements by negative impacts of noise and privacy.  This implies that even though occupants are satisfied with interactions in open-plan layout, their overall workspace satisfaction will eventually [decrease] unless a certain level of privacy and acoustical quality are provided. ”3   Kim and de Dear made sure to note in their study that the other existing research available also “…consistently identifies noise and lack of privacy as the key sources of dissatisfaction in open-plan office layouts.”4  “[S]tudies based on either occupant surveys and laboratory experiment report that noise, in particular irrelevant but audible and intelligible speech from co-workers, disturbs and negatively effects individual performance on tasks requiring cognitive processing.”5   Additionally, “[t]he loss of productivity due to noise distraction estimated by self-rated waste of working time was doubled in open-offices compared to private offices, and the tasks requiring complex verbal process were more likely to be disturbed than relatively simple or routine tasks.”6

Simply acknowledging that something is a real issue and proactively addressing it are two very different prospects that each and every business professional is faced with when dealing with situations that are negatively impacting their work.  Below are a few proactive tips to use when attempting to combat the very real struggles associated with working in an open office workspace, especially when on the road: 

Practice May Not Make Perfect, But It May Help:  The old adage of “you will get used to it” although may not completely ring true in actuality contains some merit.  Think about the myriad of areas in your professional life that you have had to practice to feel more comfortable with: performing optimally in those early morning meetings, managing others, public speaking, communicating effectively, etc.  Performing to the best of your ability in an open office space whether it be in a conference room occupied by several others all day, a cubicle, or even a more non-traditional outside of typical workhours space like a hotel lobby or airport gate occupied by dozens of business professionals is something that requires both intention and practice.  Be mindful in identifying opportunities that provide the occasion to both practice and sharpen your skills.  (Full disclosure, a few hours before any deadline will never be the right time to practice how to better cope with a disruptive workspace environment.)  Until you have tried a technique, you will not know what works and what does not.  Do not devalue the importance of going through the sometimes pain staking trial and error process of figuring out what works for you when it comes to figuring out 1) how to best focus and keep stress levels low when working in shared spaces and 2) how to quickly regain that focus and low stress level after unplanned interruptions or distractions come knocking.

Get Comfortable Outside of Your Comfort Zone: The biggest disservice that someone can unknowingly succumb to during the practice phase is shying away from trying techniques for the sole reason that they fall outside of their comfort zone.  It is paramount to remember not to, 1) discount trying something simply due to the preconceived notion that it will not work because it seems “too farfetched” or 2) shy away from employing a sense of vocalization and rigidness throughout this process even if it does not come naturally to you.  Due to the fact that this is a very real issue for so many business professionals, there have been countless articles written and studies performed surrounding the small tweaks that can be made to hopefully somewhat combat shared workplace stressors.  Keeping up to date on trends and tips can prove useful in an attempt to find a solution that works well for you.  Below are some of the most commonly written about tips:

  • Block It Out: Use headphones or white noise to block out external chatter, or for those who prefer less background noise, make ear plugs a staple in your work bag.  It is important to note that the research surrounding the effectiveness of these mechanisms stress that the personality of the individual is an important variable.7   What works well for one person, very well may prove extremely distracting for another in that exact same environment.
  • Use Your Breath: Download a mediation app on your smartphone to assist in swift refocusing midday.  Mediation regularly forces us to focus on our breath, which is something that each and every one of us with a healthy respiration rate is already doing roughly 12-16 times per minute.8   Does it not make sense to leverage this tool we are all already armed with and using to assist in stress reduction?  Deep breathing is so powerful, that it was named “the best stress reduction technique” of all by The American Institute of Stress.9
  • Personalize The Space: Be intentional about the set-up of your portion of the shared workspace if possible.  Something as simple as repositioning your chair so that you are not further distracted by having high traffic areas in your periphery or having at least one personal item in your line of vision so there is a sense of ownership of “your” space even if it is largely shared may make a difference.
  • Colors Matter: Change the background of your computer to a color that promotes relaxation.  “Neutral color psychology suggests that colors that appear in nature have a natural, calming effect.”10   More particularly the color blue, being that it is associated with both the sky and the ocean, is considered one of the most effective stress reducing colors.11   Maybe everyone with a beach scene background on their computer is onto something?
  • The Natural Benefits of Nature: If you do not have the ultimate luxury of a window within eyeshot, try making it a point to block off time each and every day to get some exposure to natural light.  A 2013 study showed that employees working in environments with natural light logged higher levels of energy than those working under artificial light.12   This study is in alignment with several other studies concluding that exposure to natural light can lead to improved productivity for a variety of different reasons. 
  • Expression Is Key: Try the sometimes difficult exercise of expressing boundaries and ground rules with your co-workers who occupy the open office workspace alongside of you.  Something as simple as either employing scheduled meeting times on your calendar the way one would if they had a traditional office or having a whiteboard outside of your cubicle where you can write your status indicating “crunch time, need to focus” or “lunch time, come in” may help foster effective and meaningful communication. 
  • Within Your Reach: Conducting an inventory of all of the aspects that make up your work week, to identity what is in your control to regulate in an attempt to lessen the stressors in other areas may prove helpful.  Lowering the overall stress threshold might allow for more tolerance when it comes to stressors that are out of our control.  Examples of this could be: eliminating desk cutter regularly, daily email inbox cleanup, or imploring a strict daily routine while at a client site even if you are typically a more laid back type of person. 

Regardless of what mechanism is chosen during the practice phase or used on a somewhat ongoing basis, it is critical that time is taken out to do research on this topic.  This research may also include reaching out to an expert in this area.  If one thing is true, it is that consultants innately know the value of consulting with other experts.  Arming yourself with at least baseline knowledge at the start this journey is paramount, as you will not know what works until you know it exists and try it. 

Assess and Advocate:  One thing that goes hand and hand with practicing how to best handle stressful situations brought on by a less than optimal workspace is continuously doing an open and honest assessment of certain non-negotiables that will apply to your particular work environment needs regardless of the client circumstances.  This is not to say that this assessment is something that you will share with your employer or client in the form of a formal report, rather it is a way for anyone to enter into new situations with a sense of boundaries and knowledge that they can tap into if needed.  The assessment by nature is a tool that is fluid and only sharpens the more experience one has in this field.  An individual can use the self-assessment performed as the lens to view each and every new client circumstances through.  A consultant should not shy away from utilizing their oftentimes most valuable tool in the field on themselves.  Being an advocate for yourself and your needs in this area, which will many times inevitably coincide with the best needs of the client, is crucial.  The appropriate and most realistic way of capitalizing on the results of one’s assessment will of course largely depend on the individual and the circumstances at hand.  However, do not shy away from voicing your concerns to your superior within your company or to the client themselves in order to see what can be done to positively impact the situation that you have assessed and conclusively deduced is unproductive.  Without vocalization of your particular needs that you know to be real and true there is close to 0% of it changing for the better.  Think about it this way, would a client rather you not vocalize that you are having an extremely difficult time efficiently meeting deadlines due to the distractions of the open office workspace you are currently assigned to or be billed X amount of extra hours as a direct result of the hindrance at hand resulting in a slower than normal working pace?  You will never know if you do not ask.  Something as simple as occasionally advocating for yourself in asking to leave the client site early one day after all in person meetings have finished simply to be able to go work in the quiet space of your hotel room can make or break a week’s worth of productivity.  Also, the added stress level generally speaking if someone is going through the day unbeknownst to their superiors feeling that they are unable to be productive should not be discounted.  This is a daunting prospect and can have stunting results on productivity, work product, and overall morale.  Open and honest vocalization is key.

Ask Around:  One hallmark of the most effective consultants is that they live by the practice of inclusivity.  From the moment they walk into the door at a client, they act as if they were an employee of that organization and not someone who is only passing through.  Something as simple as adjusting the verbiage used when asking a question can garner extremely useful information, even the most useful of information as to where the best quiet space to work is located that not everyone knows about.  When an employee of any organization starts a new job or assignment it makes logical sense to seek out the very important information that is not covered in the traditional Employee Orientation.  This can include tips about the layout of not only the physical space of an organization but also the intangible factors of consideration that only a seasoned professional unique to an organization would know.  Typically the best person to provide this guidance is someone who appears to be approachable and knowledgeable.  When informally striking up this type of conversation, it is important to pay close attention to how the inquiries are phrased.  People inevitable shy away from open and honest sharing when labels like “employees and consultants” or “us and you” are thrown around carelessly.  This may sound like an all too obvious point to stress, however it is time well spent to think about proper wording after you stop and acknowledge the importance of the information you are trying to obtain.  If a true tone of inclusivity is believed, the wording will naturally follow. 

Conclusion
When discussing working in an open office space, a simple acknowledgment of the validity of the issues and associated stressors present for certain individuals can go a long way.  Job stress is very real and the environment in which an individual spends their time working day in and day out absolutely has bearing on the quality of the end product produced and stress level of an employee.  Both employees and companies need to do their part in tackling the stigma associated with an individual who is having trouble coping with certain stressors caused by working in an open office space, as this can lead to feelings of inadequacy.  The more employees can be open and honest with their companies and the more companies can work proactively in changing their cultural view on this issue, the closer we as an industry get to the ultimate goal of consistently having lower stress levels and a higher quality work product.

About The Author: Brittany Frazza has served as highly qualified consultant for HealthNET Systems Consulting, Inc. and is currently in charge of Marketing and Strategic Innovation for HealthNET.  She has a Masters in the Science of Jurisprudence in Health Law from Seton Hall University School of Law and 5 years of experience in Healthcare IT.

 

Sources

https://www.stress.org/workplace-stress/
Kim, J., and R. de Dear. 2013. Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices. Journal of Environmental Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.jenvp.2013.06.007 https://escholarship.org/uc/item/2gq017pb
Ibid.
Danielsson & Bodin, 2009; de Croon, Sluiter, Kuijer, & Frings-Dresen, 2005; Hedge, 1982 (as cited in http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2gq017pb)
Banbury & Berry, 2005; Haka et al., 2009; Smith-Jackson & Klein, 2009; Virjonen, et al., 2007 (as cited in http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2gq017pb)
Haapakangas, Helenius, Keekinen, & Hongisto, 2008 (as cited in http://escholarship.org/uc/item/2gq017pb)
https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/memory-medic/201706/does-white-noise-help-you-learn-0
http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/healthlibrary/conditions/cardiovascular_diseases/vital_signs_body_temperature_ pulse_rate_respiration_rate_blood_pressure_85,P00866
https://www.stress.org/take-a-deep-breath/ (as cited in https://www.forbes.com/sites/amymorin/2015/07/29/5-powerful-stress-relievers-you-can-do-at-your-desk/#622d8f203cc6)
10 http://truestressmanagement.com/stress-reducing-colors/
11 Ibid.
12 The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (as cited in http://www.nbbj.com/ideas/2013/3/19/let-there-be-light/)