Tess is Events Manager for a small family-owned publishing firm that specialises in the tourist market. She makes a lot of phone calls to clients and prospects.

In a training session a few weeks ago the conversation turned to office layout, noise, distractions and efficiency. We'd discussed the working preferences of the members of the team and several commented that they were distracted by noise. Then Tess chipped in.

"You guys know I found the noise in the big office difficult." (Most of the staff work in a large open-plan office.)

"Since I moved into my tiny office" (jokes started flying about Tess's 'cupboard') "I achieve the same amount of work in four days (and sometimes more) than I used to do in five."


Dramatic as Tess's story is, I've heard variations of it ever since I began this work 20 years ago. The thing is, open plan is not the preference of most workers. Result? A huge but largely invisible waste of company resources. Yes there are benefits. But is it really a cost-saver? How many people, when planning a new office layout, take into account the lost opportunity cost of interruptions. (For more on this, see 'Interruptions are hazardous to business')

When writing my second book 'Getting A Grip On The Paper War' I surveyed my 'Top Time Tips' ezine readers with three short questions about their preferred working style and how easily they're distracted by surrounding noise.

From 3867 ezine subscribers enrolled at the time (now around 11,500), we had a 12.5 per cent response rate, and that was without offering any delicious inducement such as a trip to Fiji! I'd tapped a raw nerve!

If you want the best productivity out of your staff, you might want to consider the following results:

* Prefer open plan - 9.8 per cent

* Prefer to work in a separate office, or away from others - 41.4 per cent

* Depends what they're doing. Need quiet when they're concentrating
- 41 per cent

* Don't mind, can work in any situation - 4.9 per cent


So am I saying open plan layouts are all bad? No. But I am saying that they need managing if you're to have any hope of reasonable efficiency in this heavily interruption-prone environment.

If open plan layout is a productivity drain in your organisation, check the following simple strategies. (You'll find each of them expanded in "Getting A Grip On The Paper War')

1. Quiet rooms - with a phone, a computer terminal and a door.

2. Headsets. Great as both a visual signal that you don't want to be disturbed, and also to block background noise. You may not even have music playing, but if you do, choose something that doesn't disrupt your thinking.

3. Red time/green time. Red time is a period of the day when no-one is allowed to interrupt you. Green time is when you will take interruptions, even though of course you're always busy. Create a signal that everyone recognises. The signal or symbol sends a silent visual message to potential interrupters (as long as team members are educated to take the issue seriously).

4. Shut the door (if you have one) for at least an hour a day, and allow no interruptions. This is an extension of the red time/green time strategy.

Management theory has gone too far down the 'I must be always there for my people' philosophy, to the point that many managers feel as though all they do is everybody else's work instead of their own. Result? They go home either exhausted from over-work and ridiculous hours or frustrated because they were so busy helping everyone else they never got their own work done. Bad plan!

5. Work from home some of the time, or somewhere off-site.

6. Hot desks. This is becoming fashionable in large firms with expensive CBD floor space. People who spend a lot of time out of office, e.g. sales reps or consultants, don't need a fully dedicated office. Instead, they either bring their files and laptop with them whenever they need to be at the office, or some companies have roll-out desks which are folded up and parked in storage whilst the owner is offsite.

In some cases the mobile worker books space; in other companies there are enough free spaces for whoever needs them. Typically a mobile workspace is only a small desk, a phone, power and an intranet connection or wireless capability. When each user leaves they take their personal items, leaving the space free for the next occupant.

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To be in to win, email your entry now to jill@gettingagrip.com with Breakfast (NZ Herald Online) in the subject line. Entries close by 5pm Friday 26th October for Palmerston North and Auckland, Friday 23rd November for Wellington. For those who miss out, tickets and more details at: www.gettingagrip.com/breakfastclub/.