Concentrating in a multi-space office
The Unit of International Affairs at Kela (The Social Insurance Institution of Finland) is located in premises that have been renovated with the aim of enabling work that demands concentration. There are no private work rooms, but many other means are used to support concentration-demanding work in a multi-space office.
In the midst of a winter snow blizzard it feels good to step into Kela’s new multi-space office. I am not entering a huge space, rather quite the opposite – the entrance hall is small and compact. The feeling is additionally cosy, because everyone in the office walks about in their socks or light shoes.
The colours of the spaces are subdued. In the entrance space and coffee room the grey carpet is brightened with a sprinkling of yellow. Mari Kauranen is the chief of client services at the Unit of International Affairs. She invites me to the coffee table and explains:
– In the employees’ spaces the colours of the carpet are even less bright, because the people bring colour to the space with their clothes and things.
Altogether 48 persons engaged in international tasks work in the spaces, and randomly also specialist physicians doing office tasks, as well as teleworkers from some other offices. The labyrinthine spaces are divided into cells, two of the biggest ones have work sites for 12 people. In addition, there is a space for six people, one room for three persons, and rooms for two persons and one person. The employees have been able to express their wishes regarding the sharing of rooms and their own work site.
– Your work site and work space depend on what your work task is, says Kauranen.
If the work requires concentration, or you want to make a phone call in peace and quiet, you can use small one-person rooms, called quiet rooms. They too are equipped with electric adjustable desks and work chairs.
Concentrating in peace behind a screen
In tasks requiring concentration, the working conditions should guarantee working without distractions. In the biggest rooms, the work desks are placed in pairs, in rows. Each desk is surrounded by screens lined with a soft material that absorbs sound. The screens also isolate the work site, preventing the employee from seeing what goes on beyond the screen.
In the 12-person open space for telephone services, the screens are attached to adjustable electric desks, and they move along with the desk. In the other spaces they are stable.
– The screens insulate against sounds, but the atmosphere is less pleasant. In order to see outside, I have to lean away from the work site. Looking far away once in a while is also important, ponders Tilda Lindgren, customer service specialist.
Noise-cancelling headphones don’t solve everything
Everyone who wants them, can get noise-cancelling headphones to eliminate background noise.
– People speaking can be heard despite the headphones, unless you turn on music or nature sounds, says Tilda Lindgren.
She can concentrate on her work while listening to music, but now and then it’s good to take them off.
Anssi Roivainen, who has years of experience as a settlement specialist, works in an 8-person space for employees who handle support benefit applications. Previously he had his own room, and getting used to an open work space takes time. And despite efforts, he hasn’t gotten used to the headphones.
– When I wear the headphones, it somehow feels like the airflow isn’t quite normal. Luckily, my workmates allow me to listen to a small radio quietly on my desk.
Research has shown that the sound of people speaking lowers satisfaction with the work environment, causes stress symptoms, increases the feeling of loading, and causes people to make more mistakes. This is also the experience of Roivainen.
– Doing work that requires thinking is impossible when you hear someone speaking on the phone. Short phone calls don’t disturb, but longer ones do. Moving into a quiet room in the middle of a phone call is awkward, and beforehand you don’t know how long the call will last. Sometimes even the sound of tapping on a computer is annoying. A silent keyboard would be a welcome invention.
Interruptions load the brain
Messages that pop up suddenly on the computer screen, reminding of for instance e-mails, or other things that interrupt concentration, have been found to increase loading.
– Your thinking is easily disturbed by ads and other stuff that pop up on the screen when you are trying to concentrate on something, especially when you are pressed for time and have a lot of work to do, says Tilda Lindgren.
She has installed a program of break exercises on her computer to remind her of doing exercise stretches once every hour. At times it does disturb her concentrating, but she still wants to be reminded. Also the brain needs breaks.
There are four one-person rooms in the office, and they are not anyone’s personal work sites. Two of them can be reserved in advance, and two can be used whenever they are free.
– Also these rooms have a glass wall to create a feeling of airy lightness, says Kauranen. When someone wants privacy, a curtain can be drawn in front of the glass wall.
The physicians did not want any glass walls in their two-person rooms.
There are no spaces in the office for having breaks or retiring. There is a big sofa, but no bean bag chairs or floor lounging cushions. The open coffee room has long dinner tables and black kitchen appliances. And there isn’t a separate big common room for meetings, etc. According to Kauranen, there is no need for one, because meetings are held via Skype.
Physical ergonomics makes working easier
All three of the interviewed persons are pleased with the electric adjustable desks. Their height can be easily adjusted, so that now and then you can stand while working. The work chairs have many adjustment possibilities, and also saddle chairs are available.
Break exercises are organized in the common coffee room twice a day. Or you can do exercise stretches by yourself, some employees even have their own exercise ball and balance board. Everyone has access to a program demonstrating exercise stretches at their work site.
According to Kauranen, ‘soft compulsion’ is used to make the employees get up once in a while.
– Everyone gets a bit of extra exercise from walking to the printers, which are found at only two locations. There are no waste paper baskets at the work sites, they are found only in the open spaces.
Everybody is pleased with the office: it is new, clean, fresh and comfortable. The materials are dust-free, the air conditioning works well, and the wall-to-wall carpet is vacuumed twice a week. The pleasant led-lighting can be adjusted according to needs.
The feeling of belonging is important
Kauranen says that the employees are satisfied with the renovation. Many were positively surprised when they saw the new renovated spaces.
– A few spaces may have had a noise problem, but in such cases the person has been able to get another space, or the rules of the game have been altered. However, the quiet rooms are still not much used. When people learn to utilize them more, the spaces will function even better.
– Some people feel that organizing their work time is easier when a workmate is next to you. It’s easier to ask for help. Giving and getting help has been greatly appreciated. According to the employees, the atmosphere here is always supportive and friendly – and you’re not alone.
Roivainen and Lindgren agree.
– We have a really good work community. Sometimes we chat, and that isn’t seen as disturbing. Exchanging information and getting help from your colleague is always possible. We have a tacit agreement that we can ponder and analyse matters across team borders. Then everyone can learn something new, says Roivainen.
The new office has many advantages: coffee automats, quiet rooms, location in the city centre, luncheon restaurants close by, the possibility to leave work at lunchtime, and a short commute. In the summer, a city bike can be borrowed for the commute.
– Now that I’ve been working here, I feel that I should have come already with the first eager comers, says Roivainen.
Read more in finnish: Annu Haapakangas: Subjective Reactions to Noise in Open-Plan Offices and the Effects of Noise on Cognitive Performance – Problems and Solutions. Doctoral thesis, University of Turku 2017. The internal environment of multi-space offices…, Study of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health 2014–2016.