It seems that many readers agree that open plan offices, if not set up well or supported with enough alternatives for quiet focused concentration, are a serious problem. (See the comments to my last article).
Whether open plan or not, how do you like to receive information?
One aspect that can make a difference to someone's effectiveness in a crowded workplace is an understanding of how we like to receive and process information, especially for the auditory learners.
We have five possible channels to access information - visual, auditory, kinaesthetic (tactile), olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste). (And here's your acronym for the day - VAKOG.)
Almost all of us have a dominant preference for one of the first three - V, A, or K, with O and G operating on a very deep level for all of us.
If we're blocked from processing our experiences and incoming information in our preferred sensory channel it dramatically inhibits our ability to function.
Here's a very simple overview (which I expand in Chapter 2 of 'Getting A Grip On The Paper War').
A sterile environment closes down a visual processor. You'll need colour and interesting pictures, learn by observation, have to see things in order to retain the information and then retrieve it when needed. You're wired for visual signals. For example, if your desk is near a walkway, the toilet or the kitchen you'll be constantly distracted.
The CEO of one of my client companies, a very auditory man, has a very low tolerance to extraneous 'stuff' in his office. Neatness and uniformity are paramount to him. This even extends to the pictures on the company walls - in the main office all he allows are posters of company product information. The staff are not allowed personal pictures or even plants on their desks. His visual workers find it a very difficult environment in which to flourish.
Auditory workers find other people's noise distracting - you work best in quiet and calm (unless you've chosen the sounds or are making the noise!) You're the ones most dramatically affected by open plan.
This channel breaks into two sub-sets - auditory tonal and auditory digital.
Auditory tonal involves sounds and hearing - the words we hear and the way people say those words to us. You need to talk through a problem - you don't know what you mean until you hear yourself say it. Be selective about who's in hearing - fellow auditory learners can't help but be distracted.
Auditory digital is more internal. It's still about words, but written down - including the logic behind the words and the way they look on the page. If you're auditory digital you can write a shopping list and leave it at home but still remember everything on it. If someone gives you instructions and you can't take notes you'll struggle to recall the details. Make people wait while you write down details.
Kinaesthetic, or Tactile
Touch is the external, and feelings the internal methods of learning for a kinaesthetic processor. Your environment is critical - you can't work in an uncomfortable environment no matter how attractive it is. You have to feel comfortable with the texture of your clothes, the chair you sit in, the items you work with. And you'll have to do things with your hands when you're concentrating.
One of my students told of working for a man who wouldn't let her doodle in meetings. She found it incredibly difficult to concentrate on what he was saying, and left his employment quite quickly. (Through a whole day of training with me she doodled non-stop and gave an enthusiastic evaluation about how much she'd learnt).
What suits you might greatly disadvantage your colleagues. One size does not fit all.
Footnote: Can I ask for your help?
My views on open plan are now being sought by other media (and you know what I think!). However, it's important that I present a well-balanced opinion. Therefore we're seeking input from people who do like open plan offices, or who work in well-designed ones. We'd love to get your opinions and what makes it work for you.
Of course you're welcome to contribute to this blog column, but we won't have access to your contact details here. If you're happy to be contacted if we want to ask more, we'd love you to also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you've got something you'd like to contribute.