Raise your hand if any of the following workplace distractions sound familiar:
You are sitting in your cubicle working away when all of a sudden two employees — one on either side — stick their heads above the cubicle walls and begin a conversation, with you in the middle.
You’re minding your own business, working on an important project that the boss wants to have finished today, when a co-worker, seeing your office door open, decides to pop in and tell you all about his weekend at the beach, sparing no detail.
You’re in an open office environment, and the employee next to you is loudly conducting a personal phone call apparently oblivious to the disturbance it’s causing.
These are just a few of the many distractions your employees encounter on a daily basis and it’s significantly hampering their productivity  and morale, according to a new report released today June 14.
The report, “When the Walls Come Down: How Smart Companies are Rewriting the Rules of the Open Workplace ,” is the result of a survey of 1,200 global employees and executives conducted by the research firm Oxford Economics and funded by headset manufacturer Plantronics (NYSE:PLT). It lists noise and distractions as the biggest inhibitors to productivity and employee satisfaction.
The survey also found that technology issues along with the ability to disconnect from work when outside the office contribute to employee performance and well-being.
The survey’s major findings include:
- Employees ranked capacity to focus on work without interruption as their top priority — more important than perks like free food or onsite day care;
- Bosses felt their employees were equipped to deal with distractions at work, but less than half of the 600 employees surveyed agreed;
- Millennials are more likely to be annoyed by ambient noise in their offices than workers in other age groups;
- Twenty-six percent of executives say they expect employees to be available after-hours always or frequently, but 47 percent of employees say such availability is expected;
- Sixty-five percent of employees say they prefer a single device for their personal and work lives, rather than different devices for each.
Here are the findings in greater detail. Are any of these issues problems for your employees?
Working Without Interruption
The shift toward more open office environments designed to enhance collaboration and increase productivity may actually work in opposition to achieving those goals, the report says.
The ability to focus without interruption — a top priority for the employees surveyed — may call for rethinking office design.
“Ambient noise and lack of personal space can make it hard for employees to concentrate and get things done,” said Jeff Lowe, vice president of marketing at Smart Technologies, a developer of interactive learning tools and software, one of the companies interviewed. “All of this has led us to reimagine the workspace and productivity.”
Smart Technologies created individual “pods” and smaller meeting rooms for its employees to allow for privacy and quiet during the workday. The company also allows employees to work remotely.
Employer Reaction to Workplace Distraction
There is a disconnect between how employees feel about the need for a distraction-free environment and how their employers feel about the issue. Only 39 percent of executives say ambient noise affects employee productivity, and a mere 33 percent say loud colleagues are a problem. As a result, few companies have taken meaningful steps to resolve the problem, says the report.
“A company is only as good as the people that make it up,” said Beau Wilder, vice president of innovation waves and new products at Plantronics, in a telephone interview with Small Business Trends. “As the office environment changes and more companies go to open workspaces, not all of the executives are going with them. Employers need to be empathetic and understand the differences.”
Wilder adds that the two main reasons for the shift toward the open workspace are collaboration and cost savings.
“Companies are getting into a flat organizational structure where the best and brightest can have those serendipitous watercolor moments,” he says. “Plus, the hard ROI is that they don’t need to have as big a footprint from a real estate perspective. Combining collaboration with cost savings — it’s just too good to pass up.”
Millennials Hate Noise
The survey included a broad cross-section of Millennial employees (300) between the ages of 18 and 35.
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, they are more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and are more annoyed by ambient noise in the office than other age groups.
They are also more inclined to take steps to reduce the noise — listening to music or leaving their desks — saying that blocking out distractions increases their productivity and improves their mood.
Speaking of mood, more than half of employees say ambient noise reduces their satisfaction at work, the survey found.
In addition to distractions and technology issues, many employees feel pressured to be “always on,” says the report. Executives, at 43 percent, feel greater pressure to stay connected while 27 percent of employees feel the same.
“If I’m not provided with a work environment where I can be productive and get my individual work done during the day, it impacts not only my work life but also my entire life,” says Wilder. “Work has to come home with me, so I end up working more hours throughout the day.”
Information overload also factors in — 38 percent of executives and 27 percent of employees attest to feeling burdened. By and large, both groups believe their organizations either address the issues or should address them.
Need for Technology That Works
Two-thirds of workers surveyed feel frustrated that they are not equipped with the tools necessary to work distraction-free outside the office.
The report lays the blame squarely at the feet of executives who, it says, do not understand the extent of the challenge. About 46 percent say they equip workers with the necessary tools; only 32 percent of employees agree.
Due to their ability to work remotely — at home or on the road — workers want a single device for both their personal and work lives, rather than different devices for each.
Telus, a Canadian telecommunications company, also interviewed in the survey, prioritizes access to the tools its call center employees need — many of whom work remotely. Leadership provides employees with a standard toolset and works with them to ensure home workplaces are as conducive to productivity as the office.
“When technology performs up to expectations and interoperates seamlessly, employees are happier, more productive and free to think about bigger issues,” the report says.
Solutions to the Distraction Problem
Providing employees with the ability to work in a distraction-free environment demands that employers not only recognize a problem exists but that they also have an interest in doing something about it.
“Good workplace design takes employee needs into consideration and facilitates activities that enhance productivity,” the report says.
The report lists the following recommendations for employers, to help their employees work more productively (something the report says workers want to do):
- Begin a dialogue with employees about what is working and what needs to change regarding office design, working remotely and technology use;
- Ensure employees have the tools and devices needed to work from anywhere;
- Give employees the quiet time, spaces and tools required to conduct focused work;
- Encourage everyone to disconnect after hours, to find a balance between work and life.
The report concludes by saying that this is more than just “feel good” stuff. Employee satisfaction and productivity have a direct bearing on the organization’s financial success.
Anything that contributes to the bottom line — redesigned office space, integrated technology and better work/life balance — is worth the effort, don’t you think? We’re confident the employee forced to listen to his coworkers’ cross-cubicle conversation would agree.
Open Office Plan  Photo via Shutterstock