Endless oceans of electronic ink have been spilled on the problem of making millennials more productive at work. We're told that  millennials want exciting assignments, a chance to change the world, the opportunity to make a difference, etc.

All quite true, no doubt, but what do millennials really want at work... more than anything else?

Well, according to a recent study conducted by Oxford Economics (a research firm associated with Oxford University), what millennials want exactly what other employees want, only more so: less noise in the workplace.

The study asked participants (millennials and non-millennials alike) to rank what was important to them in the workplace.  

More than two thirds ranked "the ability to focus and work without interruptions" as a top three concern. By contrast, a measly 7% similarly ranked amenities (free or subsidized food, onsite daycare, etc.) as similarly important.

Millennials (who made up half of the non-management participants) are "more likely to say noise distracts them from work, and in general are more annoyed by ambient noises in the office."

In other words, the "open office" workplace with all its attendant noise and distraction is making employees (in general) unproductive and miserable while having an outsized negative impact on younger workers.

The big questions are 1) given that employees hate them, why do companies continue to build open office plans? and 2) why aren't companies pulling them down now that it's abundantly clear they make employees less productive?

The answer is simple: blind faith in the value of "collaboration."

Here's an historical analogy. When the first Christian missionaries came to Hawaii, they insisted upon wearing exactly what they wore in Europe: long underwear and stiff woolen clothes.

You can imagine how taxing it was to do any labor, physical or mental, dressed that way in a tropical climate. Beyond the productivity tax, it made many ill and some died of heatstroke.

Today we can chuckle at the absurdity of those dress codes, but the missionaries back then had what they believed to be excellent reasons for dressing so inappropriately. Their religion told them that it was the Right Thing To Do.

Today's corresponding workplace "religion" is blind faith that cramming people together into a small, noisy office is the best way to create get them to work effectively together.

It's all nonsense, of course.  Numerous scientific studies have proven that open offices are a productivity disaster, costing far more money than they save in facility expense.  

As for "collaboration," open offices force people to create mental barriers against other people. "It's hard to collaborate with somebody who is desperate to avoid you," points out Edward Cone, one of the lead researchers on the study.

"If good fences make good neighbors, why are execs in love with open-plan offices?" adds Adrianna Gregory, the other lead researcher. "Leadership tends to underestimate the negative effects of ambient noise."

Indeed, leadership is the real problem.  Since executives (Baby Boomers, mostly) usually get the private offices in the "open office" plan, they don't see noise as a problem. In fact, they think that ceaseless hubbub is a sign of "collaboration."

Ultimately, the clueless executives who foisted this egregious BS on the working world will retire, taking their open offices with them. Until then, though, it's up to everyone else to get the noise level down to something manageable.

Not surprisingly, millennials are already leading the way.

According to the Oxford study, millennials are "more likely to take steps--like listening to music or leaving their desks--to drown out noise, and to say that blocking out distractions increases their productivity and improves their mood."

Mid-level managers can help, too, by allowing employees to work remotely (and thus away from the chaos) and, when possible, adding sound-proofing, higher cubicle walls and white noise generators to limit the noise pollution.

The easiest positive change, however, takes only a minute and costs exactly nothing.  

THE FIX: Make it the explicit policy at your office to 1) allow headphones or visible earplugs and 2) to treat workers wearing headphones or earplugs as "busy" and not to be interrupted.  

Under this policy, if you need to communicate with the headphone-wearer, you send an email, a text, or a heads-up through a collaboration tool like Slack. In essence, everyone has the option to create their own virtual "private office."

This "don't interrupt" rule is essential because, without it, people will try to get the attention of the headphone wearer by hollering loudly so the headphone wearer can hear them over headphones.  Which just makes the noise pollution worse.

This simple, 60 second change to office policy may be world's cheapest and fastest office productivity boost.  It will increase everyone's level of happiness and their ability to get things done.  Especially the millennials.

Published on: Jun 14, 2016