Professionals are knowledge workers and thinking is their core activity. Thinking in a meeting, thinking in a conversation and thinking at their desk. The requirement for concentration that goes with knowledge work is under attack in open plan offices. Looking at the evidence for thinking in open plan rather than the business case for cost saving, it doesn’t take long to discover that the evidence to support improved communication and collaboration is thin on the ground. Smith-Jackson & Klein (2009) study of mental load in open plan offices is just one good example. A more recent study put it bluntly “…our results categorically contradict the industry-accepted wisdom that open-plan layout enhances communication between colleagues and improves occupants’ overall work satisfaction” (Kim and de Dear, 2013). You will find many more in the Journal of Environmental Psychology - but you will need one essential piece of kit before reading that research in an open plan office - your headphones.

Headphones are the new walls

Listening to colleagues describe where they are going for lunch isn’t exactly contributing to the careful reading of an expert medical report. Headphones are replacing our walls and doors as personal sound barriers. While some firms have held on to their offices and are now using them as a recruitment tool, the reality is that open plan is here to stay for many. So what’s the solution? Be careful what you listen to. The right choice of music can increase your motivation and productivity.

An interesting piece of research from earlier this year by Keeler and Cortina (2018) has linked the different features of music - key, tempo, complexity and volume - to cognition. For creativity - listen to slow, low complexity music. For blocking out others - listen to complex music in a fast tempo at a louder volume. Lyrics work for some and not others. Personally I like to sing along to the Bee Gees while working away at something routine and boring. Miles Davis and John Coltrane are playing while I write this article. There is a link between executive function (essentially think well, resist temptation and stay focused) , noise distraction and now music - so be thoughtful about what you listen to in those headphones.

Mental Health Questions

In an age of mindfulness and wellness, could the answer be a quieter, less distracting workplace? Is this the real reason people work from home - to control the noise and distractions? What is the impact of needing to manage the distracting noise made by others all day? How many errors are made, or complex thinking not started until it’s quiet? What happens when you really need to concentrate and others are making noise - how fast does that make frustration boil? What happens to the productivity of perfectionists when they are distracted by noise?

For partners & leaders in organisations

Don’t be tempted to program or control what your teams listen to. Research from back in the days of programmed music (Oldman, Cummings, Mischel, Schmidtke, Zhou, 1995) found that employees who chose their music had increased performance, satisfaction and turnover intentions - engagement by any other name.

If you still think open plan increases collaboration, take a read of Bernstein & Turban (2018) using data from wearable devices they showed that face to face communication decreased - by approx. 70% after open plan was introduced. Those walls and doors could have been much more of an investment in collaboration than anyone realised.

Let’s be realistic the walls aren’t coming back any time soon - use the best of modern management techniques, team dynamics and organisational culture to create a place for your professionals to concentrate in open plan - libraries make it work and you can too.

Article written by Anna Hinder