The Open Office, Distraction and Millennials

Dustin Staiger

The modern concept of what an office should look like is always growing and changing according to the needs of your company, and the needs of the people who work with you. Millennials are a growing force in the workplace, and businesses and managers are increasingly interested in learning how to get the best work out of this new generation of employees. Millennials have grown up in an age of booming technology and communication, and, appropriately, they have shown a greater interest in workplaces that allow them to collaborate and socialize with their coworkers. As a result, open office spaces have started to make a comeback over the last 10 years or so. (2)

“70 percent of offices in the US have adopted
open floor plans to one extent or another”


Today’s modern open office, intended to accommodate the working style of millennials, is designed to be more social and egalitarian. These open layouts often seat all different levels of employees and departments in the same area, with few barriers between work stations. This easy access to coworkers and supervisors alike is thought to facilitate socialization, collaboration, and teamwork among employees, as well as to provide better access to help from senior staff. This concept has become so popular that around 70 percent of offices in the US have adopted open floor plans to one extent or another. Despite the supposed benefits of the open office, the loss of private workspaces has not gone over well with baby boomers in the workforce, who find their new workspaces noisy, distracting, and lacking in privacy. The real surprise is that millennials, the employees these new open office plans are supposed to cater to, tend to agree with them. (2)


While common wisdom seems to hold that millennials are social butterflies who thrive on discussing ideas and collaborating in busy, social settings, the truth is that they find noise and commotion just as distracting and annoying as anyone else. In a study conducted by Oxford Economics, millennials were surveyed to determine the most important qualities that they valued in a workplace. The majority listed “The ability to focus and work without interruption” as one of their three most vital priorities. Despite finding the chatter and chaos of a busy office as distracting as older employees, millennials still feel the benefits of a more social and collaborative office are worth the sacrifice. (2,3)


Unfortunately, that may not exactly be true. Evidence shows that open office plans actually tend to cost far more in productivity than they promote through collaboration. A study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology studied the environmental quality provided to employees by both open and closed office plans. It was assumed by most that the open office would have higher workplace satisfaction, even though they were admittedly noisier, due to better teamwork and socialization with coworkers. Instead, the study showed that “enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts” and that the “benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increase noise level and decreased privacy.” In fact, open offices actually seem to discourage collaboration between coworkers, because when employees were always in a distracting, close-quarters environment, they felt less comfortable interrupting their coworkers. (1,3)


Despite their hype and their popularity, open offices just don’t accomplish their goal of fostering an active social space that promotes a spirit of collaboration between employees. At the same time, cubicles and closed-off individual offices also create a barrier to achieving those goals. So what’s really the best way to balance openness and collaboration with the need for privacy and focus? The answer could be a hybrid of the two designs. In order to optimize their employees’ productivity, businesses need to provide workspaces that facilitate open collaboration, create quiet environments with privacy where workers can focus on tasks, and also make their senior employees accessible to their team.

As open offices have shown, it’s nearly impossible to try to achieve all of that in one shared space. Individual offices also create problems with accessibility and with providing enough room for teams to work together. But businesses can optimize their employee productivity and their use of space by offering employees options for separate, dedicated areas that promote quiet concentration or active collaboration. As a bonus, these separate office environments also allow employees to be more physically active and walk throughout the day as they move from one location to another. (4)

“As open offices have shown, it’s nearly impossible to try to achieve all of that in one shared space”

An example of this is the tech company AECOM. They created quiet coding areas dedicated to allowing their coders to focus in silence, without distractions from chatter and phone calls. The Gerson Lehrman Group, Inc., designed its offices to be open, bright, and spacious, but also created different working environments — from a cozy coffee shop down on their ground floor, to large library-style tables. They also made sure to include conference rooms for large groups and focus areas for individual workers. These may be ambitious redesigns, but you can make the best use of space with an open floor plan and still provide a good working environment for employees.

Here are a few simple things you can do to help neutralize distractions:

  • Panel systems/cubicles, plants, carpets, and soundproofing for walls can help to stop sound from carrying across the office.
  • Sound-masking systems & Fans: and fans can also help drown out more distracting ambient sound.
  • Headphones: Finally, one of the easiest solutions may be one your employees have already thought of: headphones. Not only do these help block distracting sounds, but they serve as a visual cue for others to not interrupt the headphone wearer unnecessarily. Letting employees know this is a signal that a person is focusing will help them avoid interrupting individuals hard at work in plain sight.

Anything to help dampen sound is a good start, and can make a great deal of difference in your employee’s performance and their overall satisfaction with their workplace. (1,2,5)