How to Focus in an Open-Plan Office
Balancing Collaboration With Privacy
Wendy and her team have just moved from their small office to a big, open-plan building. Overnight, they've gone from enjoying their own space and their own rules to having to mix with everyone else in the organization. And not everybody likes it.
Editors who once enjoyed peace and quiet now struggle to concentrate, as music and conversation blare away in the background. Salespeople familiar with loud stand-up meetings and client calls now attempt to work without disrupting other teams around them. And even Wendy wonders how to encourage the promised "random collisions" and "casual encounters" of open-plan working.
Open-plan offices are often a "double-edged sword" – what works for some people won't necessarily work for everyone. But they are so commonplace that you'll likely experience them throughout your career.
In this article, we explore six strategies for beating distractions, achieving focus, and thriving in an open-plan office, whether you're a manager or a team member.
How Open-Plan Offices Improve Productivity and Health
Today, more than 70 percent of U.S. office workers are based in open spaces. Advocates of open-plan offices say that they provide more opportunities for people to work well, because they place fewer physical barriers between colleagues. This, they argue, encourages greater communication and teamwork.
These designs fit modern business needs, too. They allow organizations to easily accommodate extra people, and they are popular with CEOs who want to engineer "collisions" between their people.
These collisions are chance or spontaneous meetings between co-workers who wouldn't normally connect with one another, and are seen as a way to promote collaboration and inspire innovation. They can also be a great way for co-workers to socialize and reconnect – particularly for those who often work from home.
The Pitfalls of Open-Plan Offices
However, open-plan offices aren't a hit with everyone. They can feel vibrant, "buzzy" and creative to some people, but to others they are impersonal, demoralizing or draining environments. They present particular management and communication challenges, and are filled with distractions.
This can be annoying – and, at its worst, it can even be a threat to the health of the business and its people. Research shows that open-plan office workers lose 28 percent of their time to interruptions and distractions, and that it can take 25 minutes to regain flow.
There's also evidence to show that open-plan workers take 70 percent more sick days than home workers, as a result of feeling more stressed and because sickness and germs spread more easily.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, people are more aware than ever of how germs travel. As a result, open-plan spaces may discourage people from returning to the office out of fear of catching unwanted viruses.
6 Ways to Thrive in an Open-Plan Office
1. Understand Focus
The distractions found in open-plan offices can impact our ability to focus. Professor Nilli Lavie's Load Theory suggests that we have limited mental resources to concentrate with, and that distractions steal those resources, making it harder to focus.
A powerful tool for boosting focus is The Pomodoro Technique. This time-management strategy involves scheduling short breaks into your day, which can enhance your concentration when you return to a task. It can also help you to tune out distractions, both of your own making, such as social media activity, and those in the office, such as intrusive background noise.
2. Use Different Spaces
Where appropriate, allow your people to personalize their workstations. This can encourage a sense of ownership and control, particularly in larger, more impersonal offices. However, this may be difficult to implement in offices that use "hot desking," where people are not allocated workspaces, but are encouraged to use different spaces each day.
Consider using Activity-Based Working (ABV). This is where team members use custom spaces designed for specific activities, rather than single workstations. These custom spaces can include "huddle" rooms for compact meetings, and café-style areas for casual encounters and collaborations.
If you don't have these options, you can improvise with existing areas. Need a quiet space? Book a meeting room for yourself and close the door. Prefer stand-up meetings but don't want to crowd out other teams? Hold a walking meeting.
It's important that organizations provide rooms or spaces that guarantee privacy, when confidential or sensitive work or meetings are required, for example. Suggest to your senior manager that these be provided, if nothing suitable is available.
3. Consider Sound
Noise can be a problem in open-plan offices, whether it comes from stand-up meetings, office chatter or music. Research has shown that productivity can drop by 66 percent as a result of unwanted noise alone.
You can combat this by suggesting that your people listen to music or "white noise" with headphones. This is fast becoming shorthand for "I'm busy, don't interrupt me" in office spaces.
But some people, in roles such as sales and customer services, thrive in spaces that other people would consider too noisy. So, avoid dampening their enthusiasm or making them feel self-conscious in a hushed environment. Instead, designate "noisy areas" and quieter spaces.
You probably won't be able to redesign the entire office. However, you may be able to negotiate sound-masking (adding background sound to reduce noise distraction) or barrier solutions, and to assign a meeting room for use by louder teams.
4. Agree a Code of Conduct
Everybody knew the rules in the days before open-plan offices: a closed door meant that you were busy, and you'd eat lunch at the canteen, not at your desk. In contrast, open-plan offices can feel like a "free-for-all." Office etiquette is changing, with people experimenting with different behaviors, from dress codes to ways of working.
But just because an office is open-plan doesn't mean there are no rules. And if you feel that the rules aren't explicit or widely understood, then clarify them. This doesn't have to involve a list of things that employees can't do. Instead, it can give people the chance to innovate.
At your next team meeting, start this process by asking people what rules they'd like to establish or to reassert. For example, you could experiment with red or green flags on desks to signal whether people are available, or with set "quiet times" when any background music is turned off and people avoid disturbing one another.
5. Manage Sensitively
Open architecture can make it tempting for managers to over-monitor and micromanage their people. But this can cause resentment, harm relationships, and distract you from your own work. Trusting your people is important: it strengthens relationships, makes your team members feel respected, and it's usually more productive to pick up any issues that you spot in one-on-ones, rather than to spend your time looking over people's shoulders.
However, as a manager, you owe your people a duty of care, so use the office design to everyone's advantage. For example, you can easily keep an eye on morale in your team, and intervene promptly if you see conflict.
6. Communicate and Collaborate
Thriving in an open-plan office isn't just about minimizing the downsides. It's about grasping the opportunities that the environment presents.
As we mentioned earlier, the random collisions that open-plan offices make possible can stimulate creativity, communication and collaboration. Simply walking around and talking to people with different skill sets and levels of experience can spark conversations that generate ideas and solve problems.
You can create a collaborative culture and combat the dangers of sitting, too. Consider introducing "hot desking," but discuss this with your team members first, as it can clash with some people's desire to personalize their own space, as we discussed earlier. Think about positioning the coffee machines a little more strategically, and encouraging one another to deliver non-urgent messages in person at certain times of day.
Open-plan offices are popular with organizations and CEOs, but they can be less so with the people who work in them. Fewer physical barriers encourage communication and collaboration, but this makes it easy to feel interrupted, distracted or overwhelmed.
Consider these six strategies for helping your people to make the most of open-plan offices:
- Understand focus.
- Use different spaces.
- Consider sound.
- Agree a code of conduct.
- Manage sensitively.
- Communicate and collaborate.
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