Guest post by Vicky Spratt, The Debrief


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Are you reading this at work? Are you reading it because you can’t concentrate in your open plan office? Are you procrastinating? What are the odds that before you’ve managed to get to the end of this article you’ll have been distracted at least once?

You know the drill. It’s Tuesday afternoon. You’re deep in concentration, really getting down to the nitty gritty of your to do list, nailing that big project you have to finish and then…it happens. A conversation starts nearby, your desk phone rings, you see an email notification pop up in the corner of your eye, your iPhone screen lights up with a WhatsApp notification, somebody asks you a question or a group of people walk past laughing and talking loudly…you can’t help but tune in. Perhaps, if you’re really unlucky, all of the above happens at once, assaulting your senses and overloading your brain.

Maybe you join in with the group chat, maybe you pick up your phone, perhaps you lose your train of thought and start scrolling incessantly through Instagram before beating yourself up and despairing at your own lack of concentration before you get up to go in search of snacks which, obviously, will sort everything out. You sit back down. What was that sentence you were about to write? That email you were about to send? That really great idea you were about to put into action? Who knows. God this packet of Hobnobs is good, especially when dunked in my hot tea…wait, what…you remember that you don’t even like Hobnobs. That’s it…you’ve lost your focus. You might as well give up and go home now.

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The open plan office, as we know it, is thought to have originated in Germany in the 1950s, from the idea of Bürolandschaft (office landscape). It was based on the work of the brutalist architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It was adopted by businesses all over the world, and is now the generally accepted as a utopian dream for buisnesses and their workers. However, after half a century of open plan living, people are starting to question whether it really is the best way to work when you’re at work.

Why Can’t I Concentrate At Work?

If you work in an open plan office and find it near impossible to concentrate, it might not actually be your fault. It’s just the way you’re wired because of evolution.

In fact, several international surveys have found that 85% of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and can’t concentrate. One survey found that office workers lose, on average, 86 minutes a day due to distractions, many describe themselves as unmotivated, unproductive and over stressed and also say they feel they have little capacity to think and work creatively or constructively in open plan spaces.

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Open Plan Offices Are Bad For Your Health

The effects also manifest themselves in terms of people’s health; one survey, conducted by Canada Life Group Insurance, found that people who work in open plan offices took over 70% more sick days than those who worked at home.

Indeed, another study, from the University of Arizona, found that when an employee comes into work sick in the morning, almost half of the commonly touched surfaces such as telephones, desktops, table tops, doorknobs, photocopiers, lift buttons and office fridges will have been infected by their germs by lunchtime.

It’s Not Your Fault, It’s Because Of Evolution

Long before offices existed, human beings were preoccupied with one major task: survival. Apparently it’s because our instincts are hardwired to make sure we don’t die that we can’t help but be easily distracted when we’re surrounded by lots of stimuli.

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Psychologist Dr Max Blumberg says ‘our brains are not designed for the level of stimuli you get in an open plan office, as they weren’t a million years. There’ s an evolutionary aspect to this, you’re constantly in a ‘fight or flight’ mode. We are the ancestors of people who reacted to noise and danger, those who didn’t react to the threat coming round the corner died out pretty quickly. So, if you want to do something meaningful then you really have to lock yourself in a cave and hope that its safe so you can block out that kind of noise.’

As part of our evolution human beings have learned to be attentive to their surroundings so that we notice any potential threats approaching us. These are the very instincts which made our ancestors successful and meant that they survived while others died at the hands of sabre tooth tigers (probably), so that’s why we can’t just turn them off.

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Open Plan Offices Are Really Bad For Introverts

Not everyone needs quiet in order to concentrate of course. Some people actually even report needing background chatter, some like to have music playing, some put the TV on when it’s time to get down to work and others even actively seek out incredibly noisy places in which to get down to business.

Whether open plan works for you or not might actually come down to whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert.

Dr Blumberg says ‘extroverts need a level of disturbance or stress to function in the first place. If they’re not in an open plan office they never wake up properly, they get their energy from other people. This is because of something in the brain called your Reticular Activation System (RAS). Extroverts have got a very slow RAS, it needs a big fat kick before it wakes up. That’s why they seek out stimuli: people, noise and stuff. Open plan offices are less impactful on extroverts.’

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However, if you’re an introvert it might actually be hindering your productivity and stressing you out. ‘Interestingly extroverts don’t always focus as well as introverts’ says Dr Blumberg, ‘highly sensitive people have got incredibly frenetic and active Reticular Activation Systems in their brains – they go into overdrive if there is too much going on. A small amount of stimulus could easily push an introvert over the edge. They thrive really well and can operate in quiet environments world that is noisy and full of stimulation. There’s a huge growing mass of research that shows that introverts tend to dig deeper and look further when you give them a silent environment to work in.’

He notes that we need both introverts and extroverts to make the world work, though. It’s always been this way, he notes that public facing kings and queens have, historically, always had advisers. Today politicians have policy researchers and advisers who might not be great at TV interviews but know their facts and figures inside out. So, we need working environments that accommodate everybody’s needs. ‘For the human race to survive’, he says, ‘you need both types of people.’

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Successful People Disconnect

Dr Blumberg points out human beings basically have ‘old brains which are trying to cope with new technology’, we weren’t designed to cope with the constant communication and connection that we now have, quite literally, at our fingertips. ‘You can see the effects of this’, he says, ‘in things like the fact that we’re all being told that we should try to meditate more etc.’

He also says that more successful people ‘find it easier to disconnect and to stop “following” the crowd, to stop caring about what the crowd thinks. Their ability to disconnect and therefore, to stop following, gives them the potential to lead.’
What Can You Do If You’re Stuck In An Open Plan Office

Ideally there will be a revolution any day now and masses of introverts will rise up to over throw the open plan system but, just in case that gets postponed because of other important things like the mayoral elections in London or, you know, the EU Referendum what can you do to make open plan work for you?

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Dr Blumberg warns that ‘if introverts try to ‘fake it’ by behaving like extroverts in an office environment then they can end up suffering with migraines and anxiety, for example. He says ‘one way to manage open plan is meditation. It’s all about the ability not to act on every thought that comes into your head. Mediation is the art of learning to watch your brains reaction to different stimuli, to say to yourself “I’m going to choose to act on that one but not on that one”.’

If meditation and mindfulness aren’t doing it for you Dr Blumberg recommends noise cancelling headphones and says, ‘more ideally it would be nice to go to a quiet spot like a library or whatever when you need to get something done.’

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