Blinders for Humans (Or How We Learned to Stop Worrying About the Open Office)

Since at least the 17th century, “blinders” have been a common feature in equine accoutrement, serving to restrict a horse’s almost–360° vision and prevent the animal from being distracted or spooked by its surroundings. Fast forward to the 21st century and it’s now the humans, not the horses, who are struggling with distraction, particularly in the office environment. That’s why Panasonic’s design studio, Future Life Factory, has been developing blinders for humans, serving to provide beleaguered open-plan office workers with a semblance of personal space.

So, what are we even doing here, out in the open? And why are so many of us trying to put the walls back up? How did it come to this?

NPR’s Planet Money told the story of the ad agency Chiat\Day’s headline-grabbing open office redesign of 1994, envisioned by CEO Jay Chiat and realized by architect Gaetano Pesce. Chiat’s vision was to create a more collaborative creative workspace, but, as Planet Money expounds, for many it had the opposite effect of increased distraction. While it didn’t take long for Chiat\Day to return to a more conventional setup, the trend caught on. According to a report by the International Facility Management Association, 70 percent of us now work in some kind of open-plan setup.

It might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the open office layout is here to stay. Proponents point to the egalitarian camaraderie of sitting across from the CEO, the open lines of communication and free-flowing exchange of ideas, and the obvious benefit to the bottom line of fitting more bodies in fewer square feet.

But what’s an overstimulated employee to do to get some peace and quiet? If human horse blinkers are a bit much for you, perhaps noise-canceling headphones are the place to start.

Or you could retrain your brain. The Pomodoro Technique was developed in the late ‘80s by Francesco Cirillo to improve focus and productivity. It involves bring down tasks into short, timed intervals (or “pomodoros”) punctuated by short breaks to keep you fresh and motivated. And yes, there is an app for that. Focusing for just 25 minutes at a time is a lot less daunting than some indeterminate period.

Another option is fighting distraction with distraction in the form of binaural beats, a form of soundwave therapy in which headphones are used to simultaneously send marginally different sound frequencies to each ear. The frequencies are perceived together by the brain as one tone that can, according to researchers, activate specific systems within the brain. Binaural beats in the beta pattern are set at a frequency of between 14 Hz and 100 Hz, which may help promote concentration and alertness. Perfect for the post-lunch slump!

Ultimately, what we’re all craving in an office environment is the perfect balance between stimulation and concentration, creativity and productivity. Luckily, at Knotel, our business is customizing and operating the ideal space for each individual client. We’re constantly coming up with new ways to make our member companies more productive, recognizing that there need to be both open spaces for “creative collisions” and more private areas for focused concentration.

If you’re still feeling unfocused and your company is looking for an optimal space – request a consultation with us.

And in the interim, if all else fails and you decide that what’s good for the horse is not good for the human, perhaps there is more inspiration out there in the animal kingdom.