Open Office – Productivity Enabler or Slasher?

Today, about 70 percent of employees in the U.S. work in open offices.  Despite this high number, you may be surprised to learn that the open office concept is not the be-all and end-all for everyone. Success depends on personal work styles and personalities and how well workers can adapt to the high level of distraction served up by open offices.  

According to the International Management Facility Association, workers in open plan offices get sick more often (62 percent more sick days on average), they don’t like the noise (sound and temperature are the most important factors in the environment), older workers really don’t like the noise (those over 45 are more sensitive to noise and temperature), and open offices deplete productivity.

The biggest impact on productivity tends to be distractions such as overhearing conversations, ringing phones and noisy machines Tonya Smith-Jackson and Katherine Klein in the Journal of Environmental Psychology identified reduced motivation, decreased job satisfaction and lower perceived privacy as factors negatively affecting productivity.

Another finding in the Journal of Environment and Behaviour confirmed that workers in open offices are more stressed and less satisfied with their work environment. After returning to survey the same workers six months later, researchers learned that not only were workers still unhappy with their new office, but their team relations broke down even further.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the noise in open offices decreases cognitive performance. Psychologist Nick Perham states that office commotion impairs workers’ ability to recall information and even to do basic arithmetic. Listening to music to block out office intrusion does not help – even that impairs mental acuity.

While open offices seem to be better suited to younger workers, a study in 2012 by Heidi Rasila and Peggie Rothe found that certain types of noise such as conversations and laughter are equally distracting to Generation Y workers as they are to their older counterparts. However, younger workers enjoyed the camaraderie of open spaces, valuing their time spent socializing with coworkers. And while younger workers acknowledge the “problems” of open offices, they see them as fair trade-offs for a greater good.

But the trade-off is not as great as it might seem. Regardless of age, when we are exposed to too many inputs at once – a computer screen, conversation, music, telephones, email alerts – our senses become overloaded and more work is required of us to achieve a desired result. Those unable to screen out distractions in the office are frantic multitaskers.

According to Maria Konnikova (Open Office Trap), as a workplace norm, the multitasking millennial seems to be more open to distraction. However, their wholehearted embrace of open offices may be ingraining a cycle of underperformance in their generation:  They enjoy, build, and proselytize for open offices, but may also suffer the most from them in the long run.

It seems that the tried and true traditional offices that include cubicles are still the best despite their drawbacks. Research leads us to believe that employees are far more productive (and happier) in these controlled and focus-driven environments than in the open office.

Bridging the Gap between Training and Proficiency

Now that your staff completed training in your organization’s newest program, everyone knows what to do and how to do it. This is a reasonable expectation, but the reality is that training does not mean that learning has occurred. Even less so, there is no guarantee of proficiency.

In their book, Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath present six ways to make ideas “sticker.” These include:

  •  Simplicity
  • Unexpectedness
  • Concreteness
  • Credibility
  • Emotions
  • Stories

These guidelines for making ideas stick are applicable in a variety of situations – from selling to teaching! And while all of these methods can make learning stick, they can also go a long way to enabling proficiency.

 Research shows that retention of learning varies by modality. For instance:

  • 10 percent retention through reading
  • 20 percent retention through hearing
  • 30 percent retention through seeing
  • 50 percent retention through hearing and seeing
  • 70 percent retention through repeating the material (saying)
  • 90 percent retention through saying and doing

What the above demonstrates is that the more involved the learner is in the training, the higher the retention and the greater likelihood of higher proficiency.

Make training simple. This means that training should be logical and not complicated. Short bursts of training are more effective than are lengthy modules.

Introduce the unexpected into training. If the training is about records management, stage a short play that introduces real life work scenarios about handling information. Sing a song about libraries or show a video about e-mail. Get creative and introduce the unexpected!

Make training concrete. That is, ensure that training demonstrates specific behaviours and steps, allowing learners to practice the behaviours and steps both during and after training.

Both the trainer and training needs to be credible. Learners need to trust the source if they are to take the material seriously. The trainer’s body language affects the learners’ perception of credibility by 55 percent, voice accounts for another 38 percent, but what the trainer says only accounts for seven percent. Pay attention to your body language!

Make training emotional. The best way to do this is let learners know “what’s in it for them” (i.e., WIIFM – what’s in it for me). Perhaps learning the material may mean an increase in pay or a promotion at work. Nothing is more powerful than an emotional connection between the learner and the training to ensure that learning sticks.

Tell stories. Stories provide examples. People can relate to stories and are more apt to remember the story rather than the training material itself.

Using all of the above techniques can help training stick, but pairing learners with coaches or mentors helps reinforce learning, so that learners become proficient as they practice their learning.

And don’t forget to audit learning. At intervals of one month, three months, and six months post-training, follow-up with learners to discuss if they require further information. It is through follow-up that training reinforcement occurs and any issues that may arise are quickly resolved.