Last Friday I spoke to about 70 businesspeople, mainly senior executives, at the Admirals' Club in Auckland. Here's how the speech began:
"I've been researching the topic of office layout and office efficiencies for some time, and I believe there's a huge productivity drain that affects almost every business in this country, including many of the businesses represented in this room.
"I'm interested to see how people at your level of business perceive one aspect of the issue. Would you be willing to do a quick informal survey with me right now?
"As I ask each question, please stand up, and stay standing:
* If you come into work early to get a clear run at work before the interruptions start
* If you stay late for the same reason - at the other end of the day
* And if you work offsite (either at home or some other place away from your office) when you need to focus on a major project
"Thank you. Please take your seats."
By the time I'd finished those three options, nearly every person in the room was standing. I was expecting a strong response but even I was amazed at the dramatic reaction people displayed.
I then tried another tack.
"Now, please stand up those who find it easy to get high-level strategic work done in your workplace."
One man stood.
"Please sit down if you've got a door - and you shut it when you need to concentrate.
He promptly sat down."
Next I asked them to share with their neighbour their biggest time-stealers. I then called for contributions. The first two people said, just like almost every person at every corporate training session our company runs:
There's a tight connection between their time-stealers and their response to the questions I opened - with it's the noisy environment many people work in.
I don't know how this 'bright' idea of crowding people into smaller and smaller spaces became so fashionable - but it's anything but bright. In fact, it's downright ridiculous. You might be saving rental costs - but you're certainly wasting the far greater resource - wages. No-one does their best work when they can't work uninterrupted for even 10 minutes.
The Coding War Games and What They Teach Us about Quiet Work Spaces
I've recently picked up Peopleware (2nd edition 1999) by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister. (Although in publishing terms that's quite an old book, I suspect if they repeated today the research I'm about to share with you, the findings would be even more dramatic. Our work environments have become less people-friendly, not more, since 1999.)
Between 1984 and 1986 DeMarco and Lister ran the Coding War Games, a study to discover what impact high-density office conditions had on the effectiveness of software developers.
They ran the Games with computer programmers, seeking to find the characteristics of the best and worst. More than 600 developers from 92 companies participated. Each designed, coded and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. The best out-performed the worst by a ratio of 10:1. The differential was not experience. The ones who turned in zero-defect work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes. The top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments and freedom from interruption.
So, what can we do about bad office layout?
* If you've got any influence over the design of your environment, look to create as flexible a workspace as possible, with plenty of space for people to work undisturbed when they need to.
* Can you work from home some or all of the time?
* Use a headset to block the noise around you and to signal to your colleagues that you're busy.
* Can you shift your seat away from noisy traffic flow?
* Turn off your email alerts - all four of them
* Chunk blocks of non-interrupt time of at least an hour a day to work on high-level activities
* Read Peopleware.
* Also, read Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Won't Stop Talking. (I'll write about this book next time - it covers some very important issues that most businesses have no idea about.)
* Start a campaign for commonsense.
This open plan trend has gone too far!
Reader giveaway: We have 2 double passes (worth $190.00 each) to give away to Robyn's next 2 hour Breakfast Club event in Wellington, June 7th. She'll be sharing the session with business coach Lance Jensen from Red Hot Business Coaching. To be in to win, email your entry now to firstname.lastname@example.org with Breakfast (NZ Herald Online) in the subject line. Entries close by 5pm Friday 31st May. For those who miss out, tickets and more details at: gettingagrip.com/breakfastclub/.