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Feeling lazy? Blame it on the office. By Sarah Fletcher

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Is your office killing your ability to work? If you have a tendency to gaze vacantly out of the window for hours, forget to reply to emails and be distracted by your colleagues discussing last night's tv, don't feel guilty; it turns out it's not your fault after all.

Apparently we're suffering from a condition called WADD – Workplace Attention Deficit Disorder. The constant distractions created by open plan offices are destroying our ability to properly focus on tasks and… oh sorry, I started gazing out of the window again.

According to a survey published this month in The Edge, open plan offices are falling out of favour with employees because of the persistent disruption presented by a lack of walls to block out the sound of colleagues' conversations, however boring they are.

 

"I find open plan offices the most annoying thing on earth – listening to everyone else's calls and what they had for tea last night!"
Karen Bailey, HR manager

But is it really as bad as reports suggest? Do we all cling to the idea of wearing ear plugs and building a fort around our desks to deaden the sound and sight of co-workers?

"It is all too easy to talk about everything except work with the people around you," says HR manager Fiona Fritz. Working in an open plan office, she became "heartily sick of hearing about Eastenders and celebrity reality shows". HR manager Karen Bailey agrees: "I find open plan offices the most annoying thing on earth – listening to everyone else's calls and what they had for tea last night!"

It gets worse: topics of conversation don't just cover tv programmes and the contents of colleagues' stomachs; HR manager Alison Whale says her husband had to contend with staff who enjoyed revealing even more: "His only concern was people announcing 'I'm off for a wee!' so he asked them to stop. Consequently they did it even more!"

There's also the perception that open plan offices are for lowly employees, whilst senior management chooses to separate itself from the cattle in private rooms: "The worst one is where you get all the senior managers in their own office and everyone else is not important enough sat in open plan offices – that really is the worst combination that smacks of hierarchy and power," says Bailey. "It is highly de-motivating. I love it when they come out with 'Well, I have confidential conversations'… honestly, don't we all in HR?! Book a meeting room like everyone else!"

 

"The worst one is where you get all the senior managers in their own office and everyone else is not important enough sat in open plan offices – that really is the worst combination that smacks of hierarchy and power."
Karen Bailey, HR manager

Save our sanity: shut ourselves away?

But are individual offices any better? "I just don't see the point in coming all the way to work to sit in a box on your own all day," says Bailey. "Why not save the commute and work from home?" For Whale, moving to a private room after working in an open plan arrangement was a real shock: "I found it extremely difficult to cope with the isolation," she comments. "It was a new job, I was by myself and I propped the door open for weeks just so that I saw somebody from time to time."

"You often have a much better overview of what is happening in other departments, simply because you can see and hear what is going on," says Fritz. "It has done a great deal for making staff feel part of the team and has made management much more accessible," she adds.

But be warned…

Before you clamour to demand your employer partitions you off into separate offices, consider this cautionary tale: Fritz warns that when a previous employer moved from open plan back to individual rooms, it was universally hated. "Everyone hated it, feeling they had lost contact with their colleagues, [they] felt isolated and did not know what was going on."

So although an open plan office can give you unwanted access to the tedious details of your co-workers' lives, sitting all alone could be even worse. If you really can't bear listening to colleagues discussing the latest E-list celebrities embarrassing themselves on another reality tv show, make a 'do not disturb' sign, build a wall of documents around your desk or ask your local airport for the ear muffs they give to staff who stand on the runway – but think twice about curing your WADD completely as you might just end up lonely, disconnected from other employees and ignorant about those little details you wouldn't get through closed doors.

By Sarah Fletcher

 

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