Open Floor Plans, Context Switching, and Productivity: Engineering Done Wrong

4 min read

Several decades ago at this point, perhaps even in the initial dot-com boom world of the late 90s, someone decided that open floor plans were the way of the future. The ideas were led by the tail end of gen-Xers and that strange group that sits somewhere between gen-X and millenials (gen-Y? Prellenials? The label is a debate for another time) and quickly embraced by all sorts of companies not just as a “productivity booster” but in real, hard economic terms, a money saver.

Fewer walls mean more space, fewer cubes and dividers means less money spent by facilities on creating separated spaces, and all of those mean money that isn’t being spent.

I want to talk about me for a moment, because I’m not alone in my loathing of combined spaces. At nearing 4 decades of life, I know how I work best, and I know what causes my productivity to plummet. I’m pretty good at noise filtration, but I’m really bad at visual distractions. That means in an open or semi-open floor plan, every time someone passes by, I get distracted. The visual aspect of it draws my eyes away from my work to look at whatever the movement is.

When I have a choice, I sit away from windows. I do not care about the view, I care about work. I face walls. I close doors. In one workplace, I hung a sheet to block the entrance to my cube so that I could focus. Amazingly, that worked pretty well… except for the gophers in the next cube, or people who would notice the next cube was empty and use it to pop over my wall – as if the sheet were some sort of magic device that blocked the outside world completely.

There are many people who are more adept at visual filtration and thus use headphones of some variety to block outside noise. That’s great until you have to deal with someone who didn’t get the memo that “headphones on” means “do not bother me, I’m working.”

But then there’s the other problem – while the visuals and noises become a distraction, the value of direct interpersonal interaction goes down. People seem to be willing to have the low value (for productivity) interactions - “How was your weekend? The new baby? Your SO?” - but avoid the high value ones and defer them to less concrete means: email, instant messages.

I’m not the only one that thinks this is the case, either: The Royal Society published a Brief early this month called “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” and it is pretty much on par with what I think. So yes, I’m a bit biased towards the study – but I wasn’t involved in it, so that’s something, right?

All of this is an irritant, at least to me, but what is the impact on productivity? A little negative? Significantly negative? None?

The study calls out a number of negatives, including reduced collaboration, but for me it is both more and less than that: it is context switching. If I need to get work done, and I’m jarred out of my focus by some accidental visual encroachment, it takes time to get back to work and re-focus. I have been told that is true for many friends, peers, and direct reports of mine as well.

Here is the set up for a scenario you can use as a critical thinking game: Consider a workspace with a fully open floor plan, with 60 workers, that has embraced an 8 hour (480 minute) workday. All 60 workers take a bathroom or smoke break approximately every 2 hours, starting an hour in to the work day. They also take a lunch and two longer breaks, one in the morning and in the afternoon. Now imagine that except for lunch, 75% of these things that generally involve both sound and movement happen at different times.

I’ll do the math for you, so that you don’t have to: not including lunch, that would be 59 people to serve as distractions for one person, and one person whose own schedule is a distraction. All 60 people have 6 planned movements a day. Worst case scenario (without accounting for meetings, visitors, clients, and other distractions, planned or unplanned) that accounts for 270 distractions (60 people x 6 distractions x 75% of those being unique), or one distraction approximately every minute and 45 seconds; every 1.78 minutes, or 1 minute 47 seconds to be slightly more precise.

Now imagine that it takes a minimum of 30 seconds to recover from a distraction and re-focus on work. That is 135 minutes, or 2 hours and fifteen minutes a day of lost productivity. Add in our breaks from earlier, let’s say 3 short 5 minute breaks, two 15 minute breaks, and a 30 minute lunch break… because our people are dedicated. We tack on another hour and fifteen minutes, so we’re up to 3 and a half hours of time in a day of productivity that goes out the window.

Add in some other random problems, lets be conservative and add 30 minutes worth, and we have cut the productive workday in half – just through known distractions.

So workers come to work in an open floor plan, and we plan on them getting 4 hours of work done. What’s the cost of that? Is it more or less than the recovered floor space and reduced facilities budget? What if we give those people a distraction reduced zone, such as a majority closed off space like an office, or even a sound-buffering cube with high walls and a way to shut it off? We eliminate 59 people’s worth of distraction in the above scenario, reducing our distraction recovery for known distractions down to the 6 disruptions we can qualify from the breaks above, or 3 minutes.

It’s all a bit of a wild thought exercise, people operate in groups and patterns so the unique distractions are likely fewer number, while the random distractions are probably greater in number, but my theory remains the same: open floor plans do more harm than good by impacting the number of times a person context switches during the day, even if it’s just a switch from a task to distraction back to a task, and in my opinion the lost productivity isn’t worth the theorized increased collaboration.

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Stephen Sadowski

Leader focusing on quality, delivery, technical debt management, and leadership education about DevOps and SRE practices