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Are Open Office Spaces Crimping Knowledge Worker Productivity? In Some Ways.

Posted by Kevin Gulley

Oct 21, 2014


When most of us think of open office spaces, we probably think about start-ups.  Young companies with young employees all sitting around in a crowded room with no partitions, very noisy, a bit chaotic...but cheap.  We’re definitely not talking about IBM here - or are we?

The trend towards open office space is accelerating and it’s not just small companies.  There are several reasons that this is the case.  First, mobile employees just aren’t in the office as much (less than 60% of the time), and companies don’t want to pay for hard walls and space they don’t need.  This has allowed businesses to reduce the square footage requirements on a per-person basis which they like.  Second is the desire for increased collaboration and employee communications.  The first time I remember spending time in an open office environment, it was a long room with long rows of tables with workstations lined up from end to end (now called ‘benching’).  When someone needed something from a colleague, they just called out their name and asked.  It was a shock to my “I want a corner office and a gatekeeper assistant” sensibilities, but a hell of a lot more effective than email.

The third reason is corporate culture.  A recent article in Slate that discusses the open office trend, explains:

There are countless ways for managers to shape the psychological environments of their employees. Designing the physical workspace may be easy to overlook as a means of dictating corporate culture, but it is in some ways the most fundamental of management choices. The tenor of meetings, the ease of collaboration, and the frequency of serendipitous colleague interactions can all be deeply affected by the landscape of an office.

A lot of CEO’s and companies want to promote this type of environment and open communications culture.  But along with the good comes the bad, and  open offices can create some challenges.

Challenges Businesses Must Overcome With Open Office Space

For businesses that employ a high percentage of knowledge workers their focus is on making those employees as productive as possible.  Open office spaces, while providing benefits - like those described by Michael Bloomberg in the Slate article - also present problems, namely chaotic environments with plenty of visual and audio distractions.  

These cause challenges for employees that spend time doing different kinds of work.  Sometimes we need to collaborate and sometimes we need to be able to concentrate deeply on an important phone call, or execute on ‘heads down’ work without consistent interruptions.  A recent article in Forbes discussed how companies are using unique furniture arrangements to minimize distractions for employees:

Most of them have opened up the floor plate and then they’ve realized that there’s way too much distraction and too much noise. It’s not just an acoustical thing. You need to feel you have your own neighborhood with your own team, and not be distracted continually by something that’s happening 200 feet away in the office. So it’s sightlines as well as acoustics that have to be addressed. You need to create different zones and neighborhoods. Like this one is for private, heads-down work and this one is for team work, this one is for sharing and so on. That’s a much more subtle and complex thing than just opening up the floor plan and sitting everyone at tables in the open, which has become the kind of misinterpretation of open planning and the benching systems that we’re seeing everywhere.

There are some pretty cool examples of how to rethink open offices in the slideshow at the bottom of the article.  However, decorating is always an expensive endeavor, and many of the businesses that prefer open office space aren’t going to move in that direction.  What can they do to improve the ability of their employees to concentrate and achieve maximum productivity?

Creating Personal Concentration Zones

That is why I found it so interesting when I heard about the Jabra Evolve headset.  This new product addresses the concentration / interruption problem head on and promises an improved personal concentration zone.  These new Unified Communications headsets provide a lot of tech in order to deliver on that promise, including:

  • Noise cancelling speakers, so you don’t hear the craziness going on around you

  • Noise cancelling on your microphone, so the people you are speaking with don’t hear the craziness going on around you

  • The ability to connect to computers, mobile devices, deskphones or smartphones

  • Notification lights - I love this one.  If you are on a call, a light automatically appears on the earpieces of your headset so co-workers know not to interrupt you. A simple click makes these lights come on manually so you can get that ‘head down’ deep thinking work done.  A personal 'do not disturb' sign.

  • Killer acoustics and a universal audio jack so you can listen to your favorite productivity tunes while you work.

You can check out a video below to get a complete overview of the Evolve.  With the trend towards open offices continuing to pick up steam, it is nice to see some innovative solutions coming out to help workers maintain their productivity in these busy environments. 


Topics: Technology, Voice, collaboration, Business Case, Unified Communications,

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