Last reviewed 20 February 2018

A space for better collaboration, or an environment that saps away at people’s ability to focus? Laura King looks at the causes of distraction in open-plan offices and what can be done about it.

Over eight million of us work in open-plan environments. The design is ubiquitous: think of a modern workspace and an open-plan office comes to mind. Lower costs and the promise of better team working mean that these environments are now the norm. However, increasingly the set-up is being criticised as a space in which people are easily distracted and unable to work.

How often have we been distracted by a neighbour’s conversation or had to leave our desk to make a difficult phone call? Not even taking into consideration the constant flow of emails or questions from colleagues, a number of surveys back up what most people already know: open-plan offices have their benefits, but they are not always an ideal space, particularly if you need to concentrate.

So step into shoes of the workforce — what is causing frustration and leading to distraction? Given limited budgets, and the likelihood that very few organisations will have the opportunity for a full redesign, what is within the power of the employer to change?

Four ways to reduce distractions in the office

Variety

Offices should be able to cater for people who need to focus, as much as those who need a loud, collaborative space to work. Some people might thrive where there is a “buzz”; other people might struggle.

Providing a variety of spaces people can work — from small enclaves for informal meetings, to quiet desks in low-density seating areas — is crucial. On a low budget this could be achieved by reviewing what space is available and how it is used. Perhaps there is an underused corner that could be turned into a quiet area by incorporating sound-shielding, or seating plans could be revised to create zones that better group people according to task.

By creating different working spaces, employees are more able to choose where they work and control distractions from office noise, as well as being able to find a place to work that gives them the amount of privacy they need.

This idea of remote working is another option to consider. If the office space cannot be re-thought, there may be ways to support hot-desking and strategies for homeworking.

Dividers or partitions can be useful to create some sound-shielding and privacy, but care should be taken in high-density seating areas. Some studies show that desk dividers can lead to more disruption — the theory being that not being able to see what is causing a noise is more distracting than knowing where a sound is coming from.

Office map

Offices should be easy to navigate and walkways should be designed so that distractions caused by them are minimised, for example, by not sitting people in through-ways, or by creating physical barriers between employees and walkways. This helps avoid visual disturbances for staff and also allows employees and visitors to move around easily without having to weave through desks.

Social areas are also important. These can be used to give colleagues a place to go and chat — removing distractions from the office, as well as helping encourage networking within the organisation.

Minimising noise

Sound masking or creating low-level ambient noise can be another way of reducing distractions. This is because, as unintuitive as it may seem, adding noise to an environment can minimise the impact of other sounds. Research has shown that conversations that are inaudible are less distracting; so creating enough background noise to mask unwanted speech is one way of reducing this frustration.

Another way to reduce noise is to incorporate objects into the office that can absorb sound, for example, using carpets in corridors and using soft-walled partitions. Acoustic wall and ceiling panels, as well as strategically placed plants, are also excellent options.

Individual solutions

Once all workplace options have been exhausted, it might be worth looking at the policy on using noise-cancelling headphones or listening to personal music. Another option that has seen some success is an agreement that allows staff to have periods of time in which they are not interrupted.

A place to work

Distractions affect all of us, and it is important to remember that no work environment will be perfect for everyone all of the time. However, when considering that a one-minute distraction actually means more like 30 minutes of unproductive time, small changes can significantly empower staff to take back their working day.