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Another Reason to Hate Your Open Office: It’s Damaging Your Memory

About 70 percent of offices in the United States have an open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association (cited by Forbes). The benefits to companies are easy to see: lower real estate costs and more flexible seating in case hiring (or layoffs) pick up. Some employers have even made the argument that open-plan offices improve collaboration, allowing teams to get together with greater ease and speed.
desk
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There’s just one problem: workers hate open offices. And, it’s not because they’ve always dreamed of corner-office status or can’t get by without a place to hang their cat calendar.

The biggest issue is that these floor plans are distracting.

Staying Put Might Help Us Retain Information

There are many variations on the open office plan, but perhaps the most distracting might be the “hot desking” model, in which workers move from place to place based on the day’s work.

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At the BBC, Bryan Borzykowski explains:

We retain more information when we sit in one spot, says Sally Augustin, an environmental and design psychologist in La Grange Park, Illinois. It’s not so obvious to us each day, but we offload memories — often little details — into our surroundings, she says.

These details — which could be anything from a quick idea we wanted to share to a colour change on a brochure we’re working on — can only be recalled in that setting.

Too Much Noise Can Also Affect Memory

Even if your company assigns desks, an open floor plan can affect your ability to retain information. Why? Because open offices generally are noisier than those with walls, and too much noise makes it difficult to concentrate and remember.

A 2011 study from the University of Gävle, Sweden placed two groups of students in simulated open-office environments, one with a high volume of noise and one with low. The researchers then asked participants to complete memory-intensive tasks, gauging their stress levels by both physiological measures (e.g. cortisol levels) and self-reports. They found that participants who worked in a high-noise environment “remembered fewer words, rated themselves as more tired, and were less motivated” than those in a low-noise environment.

What Can You Do to Improve Your Focus?

If you’re not a decision-maker at your company, you probably don’t have much say in the seating arrangements. But there are things you can do to give yourself a fighting chance of remembering what you were just working on, five minutes after you’re called away.

One idea comes from the same study mentioned above: researchers found that participants who engaged in a restoration phase with soothing sounds (river sounds, for example) were less stressed and remembered more than those who engaged in a restoration phase filled with noise. You might try to plan your own rest periods into your day, playing soothing music over headphones — or better yet, going for a walk at lunch.

But perhaps the best thing you can do is to recognize that too much time in a noisy, hectic office will impact your ability to concentrate. Do what you can to get away from time to time, whether that’s negotiating for occasional telecommuting privileges or booking yourself the floor’s tiniest conference room for some heads-down working time.

Above all, understand that the problem is with your office, not with you. You’re not absentminded or lacking in focus; your environment is working against you.

Tell Us What You Think

Open offices, love them or hate them? We want to hear from you. Tell us your thoughts in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.

Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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8 Comments on "Another Reason to Hate Your Open Office: It’s Damaging Your Memory"

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Joe
Guest
I totally agree with this, but aside from the distraction in an open office environment, there is also the problem of not having any privacy. Many people enjoy at least a little privacy without feeling like their coworkers or supervisors are staring at them. This feeling of being watched also contributes to being distracted because if you are worried about someone paying attention to what you are doing it takes brain power away from what you are doing. I know this first hand. For all the hate that cubicle environments, get – this is a good reason to support them.
prevert
Guest
Open offices were designed for micro managers and control freak management models. I’ve worked in several over the course of my career. There is no privacy, everyone knows when your boss chews your ass or your spouse is having a bad day. They are never big enough and most are setup so the “supervisors” can see your monitor. The best example is when the “boss” is elevated above everyone else and can actually peer down into the employee space. I would never work in that environment again. Putting your employees in that kind of work environment shows a complete lack… Read more »
Rachelle
Guest

I hate it! I have trouble concentrating with background noise. I work in IT, so open concept office is fairly normal these days. But I find it very hard to concentrate with music blaring, and people talking loudly. I often have my own headphones in so I can concentrate on what I’m doing without feeling anxious with all the noise. It’s especially irritating when you are trying to talk to a client but co workers are yelling to each other across the office.

V.Muthuswami
Guest

One of those unthinking modern ideas of office management, that cannot distinguish the car making assembly line of workers + robots, and office work requiring specialised knowledge and skills that can only flourish with space and privacy,

Luis
Guest

There is a fine balance here. If a team is working on a common project, then there are some benefits. If management randomly seats people without forethought about working environments and team structure then it is a disaster.

Callie
Guest

I am currently in this situation. It’s awful. they have ‘white noise’ pumped in, but you still hear other conversations, distractions of people walking behind you and I have a director who sits in an office behind me coughing and sneezing all day long. I actually heard a conversation she was having with an employee, reprimanding her because she left her door open. can’t concentrate, make mistakes (which are tallied every month) not a good idea

Kat
Guest

I absolutely hated my last job which was in an open plan office full of show ponies who didn’t talk to the person next to them – they shouted their conversations at them. I couldn’t remember a thing, even if I had just finished doing said “thing”. I was constantly exhausted, frayed, stressed and ended up with an anureysm at the age of 44.

Hillary Allen
Guest

Please tell the CEO of Scotia Bank about this! Thank you.

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