Focus, Flow and Productivity in the Open Office

Cubicle Fresh by Sean Duffell

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (no, I can’t pronounce it either!), psychology professor and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, people are most creative and productive when they are in a state of “flow.”

Understanding “Flow”

Flow is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.”[1]

This TED Talk by Professor Csikszentmihalyi provides a deeper look into the concept of Flow and its impact on creativity. For employers, the three most important things to know about Flow are:

  1. Flow heightens creativity and purposeful productivity.
  2. Flow creates a feeling of immense satisfaction and “happiness” in the person experiencing it.
  3. Flow only happens when focus is complete and all outside distractions fade into the background.

What About Open Offices?

So how can this heightened state of productivity be achieved and how might it be reconciled with today’s open office environments and interrupt-driven work?  The unfortunate truth appears to be that it can’t.

Although the generation of workers currently entering the workplace has become accustomed to open offices, multiple distractions, background noise and working in interrupted spurts, there is growing evidence to suggest that even the most inured are craving focus time.

According to one study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology,

“Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ [indoor environmental quality]… Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”[2]

For good reason, open concept offices are being reexamined, and not only for their impact on productivity, but also for their impact on employee health and well-being. For example, researcher, Dr. Vinesh Oommen from the Queensland University of Technology's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation has conducted an extensive review of research into the impacts of open office environments[3], and found the following:

“In 90 percent of the research, the outcome of working in an open-plan office was seen as negative, with open-plan offices causing high levels of stress, conflict, high blood pressure, and a high staff turnover.”[4]

It is not only in these recent research efforts that such concerns are being raised. Over twenty years ago Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister wrote their first edition of Peopleware. Findings (since updated and confirmed) included statistics supporting two clear conclusions:

  1. The types of workspaces that lead to the greatest productivity are those that allowed each worker to have a proper office with closing door (not a cubicle).
  2. Minimizing interruptions is necessary to ensure that workers can concentrate.

Balancing Collaboration and Concentration

It may well be time to reconsider the open office environment. At minimum, employers should strive to provide a combination of open and private space so that employees are free to interact and collaborate, yet also have the ability to retreat into a private space where they can minimize distractions and concentrate when they need to.[5]


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Photo Credit:  Cubicle Fresh by Sean Duffell, winner in a logo-design competition to raise awareness of the emergence of cubicle housing for dairy cows on farms in New Zealand. (All dairy herds in NZ were previously free-range.) It is a satirical logo for an imaginary brand of milk called Cubicle Fresh. Source: Shared via the Free Art License.


[2] Iim, J. and deDear, R. (2006) Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices Faculty of Architecture, Design and Planning, The University of Sydney, Australia

[3] Oommen, Vinesh G., Knowles, Mike, & Zhao, Isabella (2008) Should health service managers embrace open plan work environments? A review. Asia Pacific Journal of Health Management, 3(2), pp. 37-43.

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