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Open workspaces are the norm in today’s offices. But does this kind of floor plan help or hinder productivity?

Claudia Grisales, a business columnist at my local newspaper, the Austin-American Statesman, took on that topic recently, and I shared some thoughts for her article:

“There is a great deal of research, as well as anecdotal evidence, that shows that open workspaces lower workers’ levels of concentration and inhibit productivity and creativity,” said Maura Thomas, an Austin-based speaker and founder of “These types of workspaces can also cause higher levels of stress and provide less satisfaction for workers.”

Open workspaces should still include quieter, more private areas, productivity expert Maura Nevel Thomas of says.

Open workspaces should still have quiet areas set aside for focused work.

The success of open workspaces comes down to how they’re implemented. Companies are drawn to open-office layouts because they want to promote creativity and collaboration. But open floor plans can also hurt productivity by increasing distractions, and taking away employees’ sense of control over their workspaces and privacy. And perhaps most importantly, it’s difficult to do focused work in open workspaces.

If your company is thinking about moving to an open floor plan, or you already have an open workspace that you’d like to make more conducive to productivity, here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • While open workspaces can inspire collaboration, employees need places for quieter, more private conversations as well. Austin advertising firm LatinWorks, one of the businesses cited in the American-Statesman story, made sure that its new open workspace includes areas for talking privately.
  • Likewise, any open workspace should have places with fewer distractions where employees can do “deep work.” If it’s impossible to carve out space like that in your office, consider letting employees work from home on projects that require intense concentration.
  • Come to agreement in the office on tools that communicate when people don’t want to be interrupted. For example, you can establish a rule that wearing headphones signals “do not disturb” time. Even colored construction paper stuck to the back of office chairs works well (use red, yellow, and green.)
  • Studies show that putting workers in charge of office décor, giving them input on common spaces and letting them totally control their own workspaces can counteract feelings of lost control in an open office.

There’s an entire chapter about the challenges and potential of open workspaces in my upcoming book, Work Without Walls. (Email me if you’d like a preview.)