Making Open Office Plans Work for Your Organization

How to gain collaboration without losing concentration

By Edward G. Brown January 27, 2015

More and more companies are embracing open office layouts with the goals of improving communication, increasing collaboration and reducing overhead by packing more workers into less space. In fact, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have no or low partitions, according to the International Facility Management Association.

All well and good. Communication, collaboration and cost-savings are worthy pursuits. Scratching out a competitive edge in today’s economy is harder than ever. Teamwork is essential.

But every change has side effects. Workers in open floor plans are more exposed to interruptions. They may struggle to focus on their own work when activity is unfolding within their hearing and line of sight.

Since one intent of open floor plans is to promote collaboration, it would be ironic if the price of collaboration was a drop in productivity with workers less able to concentrate.

Make no mistake: Interruptions and distractions are not innocuous. Research from the Cohen Brown Management Group shows office workers at all levels report losing three to five hours of productive time every day due to unwanted, unneeded and unproductive interruptions.

Ninety-three percent of workers responded “Yes” when asked if they are “often interrupted” at work, and they said 68 percent of those interruptions come from co-workers. Face-to-face interruptions account for one-third more interruptions than e-mail or phone calls, according to the journal Organization Studies.

When Cohen Brown asked employees how their inability to defend their own time affected them, they said it:

  • Creates more stress: 80 percent.
  • Reduces efficiency: 77 percent.
  • Reduces productivity: 66 percent.
  • Diminishes job satisfaction: 60 percent.
  • Causes more mistakes: 41 percent.

So the question for companies transitioning to open floor layouts is, how do you gain collaboration without losing concentration?

Changing Behavior

Most people struggle with concentration anyway, even without interruptions—and an open floor plan exacerbates any “self-interruption” habits.

The fix isn’t a physical one. It’s a matter of changing behavior.

Fortunately, there are simple steps workers can take to change those behaviors. One option is training employees to focus regardless of the environment by drawing on learned behaviors.

Of course, it’s not a one-and-done training event. No behavioral change is. It needs to be managed, practiced, refreshed and reinforced in order to have it embedded into the tapestry of the work environment.

Employees may fear a confrontation and be reluctant to tell the people who steal their time that the interruption is inconvenient.

Therefore, before employees will take on that challenge and be willing to make a change, they need to realize just how much havoc interruptions cause them personally. They need to calculate at the end of a normal day how many interruptions they experienced, and how much time those interruptions “stole” from their day. When they do, they are almost always astonished by how much time interruptions take up. So that’s a critical starting point: Know the cost.

The next step is to stare down the fear of deterring a time bandit. Employees should learn the communications skills necessary for explaining how one’s ability to work without interruption also benefits the bandit. That means finding the right words and tone, practicing delivery, anticipating how the bandit might object, and preparing responses to any objections.

Another best practice is to institute time-locking, or carving out a specified period of time where employees can work uninterrupted on high-priority, specific, time-managed tasks that require their undivided attention, with interruptions allowed only for true emergencies.

Time-locking should become a coordinated plan of reciprocal events, with other workers covering for a time-locker so that they can get their turn. Managers need to oversee the effectiveness of time-locks and make sure they are used for appropriate purposes. When workers in an open office environment find themselves reclaiming hours of time every day once they master these techniques, managers will need to make sure that reclaimed time is resourced appropriately, and only then will you see improved communication and increased collaboration within your company.

Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had (Cohen Brown Picture Company, 2014) and co-founder of the Cohen Brown Management Group, a culture change management consulting and training firm for the financial services industry.

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