Balancing collaboration with privacy: focus in the chaos of the open-plan office

Do you find it difficult to focus at work? If you answered yes, you’re not alone. In Gallup’s recent report on the State of the Global Workplace, researchers found that only 15 percent of workers worldwide are engaged and inspired at work, with 85 percent either not engaged, or actively disengaged. The average person will spend roughly 90,000 hours working in their lifetime, but if the majority of this time is spent distracted, disengaged and uninspired—it’s a tragic waste of potential.

Intelligent design offers subtle cues as to how we should interact with our environment. While it is not the sole solution to this global problem, building workspaces that encourage focus and engagement can, and will, change the way we behave at work.

How can design change workplace behaviour?

How can design change workplace behaviour?

Compared to the cellular office—in which each employee has their own room with a door—open-plan offices tend to be associated with decreased productivity, motivation, and work satisfaction (Brennan et al., 2002). However, when researching the effects of the open-plan office on engagement, Steelcase found that open-plan offices aren’t solely to blame—it’s about balance. The optimal workspace should counter collaborative spaces with private focus zones; an environment where people can comfortably shift between working with others, and working alone.

In busy, open-plan workspaces, interruptions can occur as often as every three minutes. These distractions are detrimental to a focused workflow; once a distraction grabs your attention, it can take as long as 23 minutes to return to the task at hand. When you consider these numbers, it’s a wonder work gets done at all.

Creating an environment that facilitates both collaborative work and focused work requires strategic planning. Every team works differently, so the solution has to be tailored to the needs and desires of the people within. Looking at the structure and culture of a business provides clues to how their space should be designed.

For teams that collaborate often, visual and acoustic partitions and dividers can be used to create cocoons of privacy in the open office—spaces that people can retreat to when focus is required. Acoustic desk screens are particularly useful in bull-pen style setups as they offer a sense of privacy without complete separation. You can be sitting a few feet from someone, but still feel as if you have your own secluded space.

An open-plan office with acoustically treated breakout rooms is ideal for teams that spend more time doing focused work, but still need to come together and collaborate. Varying the room size and style creates space for both individuals and small teams to seek privacy while still feeling connected to the group.

The future of the open-plan workspace

The future is uncertain, 2020 has taught us that much—but with struggle comes valuable opportunities to grow, innovate, and re-think the way things are done. As previously discussed, there is no perfect solution to the problem of the open-plan office. Instead, designers should be looking to evolve and develop alongside the fluctuations of change in the modern workforce. The best workplaces support the activities and goals of the group while simultaneously meeting the needs of the individual. For a team to thrive, its members must flourish first.


Acoustic solutions for a focused office

Solutions for open-plan spaces:

Acoustic screens and dividers such as Cascade Hanging Screens, Vicinity Desk Screens, and Cove Slide-on Desk Dividers are perfect for open-plan spaces as they create privacy and absorb distracting background noise without completely obstructing collaboration.

Solutions for breakout rooms:

Symphony® Acoustic Wallcovering, Cube and Quietspace® Panels are ideal for breakout spaces as they effectively absorb echo and reverb whilst supporting a comfortable ambient environment conducive to focused work.


The optimal workspace should counter collaborative spaces with private focus zones; an environment where people can comfortably shift between working with others, and working alone.

Brennan, A., Chugh, J.S. and Kline, T. (2002), “Traditional versus open office design: a longitudinal field study”, Environment and Behaviour, Vol. 34, pp. 279-99.
The Privacy Crisis. (2014). Retrieved December 1, 2020, from
Steelcase 360 (Producer). There’s No One-Size-Fits-All Open Plan (ep. 2) [podcast]. Retrieved from