How to Get Work Done in an Open Office

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Overheard sales calls, the coworker who won’t silence their cell phone, chatty banter from across the room. Without cubical partitions, your co-workers’ work lives becomes intertwined with your own. How is your team supposed to get work done with constant noise and distraction coming from all angles?

In the last decade, open office spaces have risen in popularity. Nearly  70% of Americans have worked in this environment before, but if you ask anyone, there’s usually a love/hate relationship. Open offices allow for constant collaboration, but it comes at a cost. Research shows that for strenuous tasks, open offices severely hinder productivity. Still, since many of us still operate in open offices, the question remains: how can you help your team get the most out of the collaborative benefits without all the negative side effects?

How Does an Open Office Affect Productivity?

It’s not necessarily the white noise from keyboards tapping, copiers running, and phones buzzing that’s causing a problem, but rather office chatter that’s most damaging. Speech is incredibly distracting because it’s interpreted in the brain’s working memory. Tasks that require concentration are highly impeded by irrelevant conversation. The human brain can only pay attention to 1.6 conversations at one time. If there’s chatter and noise around and the mind wanders to a nearby conversation, there won’t be much brain power to work with. Speech noise is responsible for a 66% decrease in productivity in open work spaces compared to sectioned off offices.

Try Noise Masking

In an effort to minimize the negative effects of irrelevant speech, try installing noising masking technology. Masking works by obscuring distracting audio with sounds that have similar frequencies, usually with a noise machine made for this exact problem. Noise masking is much less intrusive than adding music to your workplace. Music can provide some relief over irrelevant speech, but overall it still decreases the ability to perform cognitively demanding tasks. If you want to learn more about noise masking, check out the blog over at Cambridge Sound.

Change How Your Team Views Communication

People may feel obligated to be available to their other teammates all the time, but it’s unrealistic. There just aren’t enough boundaries in most open offices. Headphones have become the only way to communicate “Please God let me work on my own project right now!” While headphones work at creating barriers, they sometimes work too well and can cause disagreements. There’s a healthy balance between the isolation of headphones and constant interruptions, and it starts with changing the way your team thinks about communicating. Here are some ideas that have worked well for us.

  • Since you can’t close the door on one another, block off a chunk of every day that’s just yours. Behavioral scientists recommend using your morning as uninterrupted, focused time. Encourage each of your team members to build this practice into their daily schedule and respect each other’s routine.

  • Put whatever hours you’ve designated into your shared calendars so you can keep tabs on one another.

  • Have people put up a ‘busy’ sign at their desks and set a status on gchat that says, ‘Please don’t message unless urgent.’

  • You can also try adding small whiteboards to every desk. People can write what they’re working on if they don’t want to be disturbed. Coworkers can easily see if their coworkers are working on something important and decide whether or not they want to interrupt them.

If you insist that your entire time do this, no one needs to feel guilty for having time to themselves.

Give Hot Desking a Shot

If you’re going to have an open work space, give your employees maximum flexibility to get their work done. Instead of insisting that everyone is bound to their one desk, try hot desking. Set up a variety of work spaces that people can use when it’s best from them. There should be some desks, open work spaces, conference rooms, lounges, and call rooms. Allow people to move around to spaces that allow them to quietly focus, or move to spaces that help facilitate conversation and interaction.  

Create a Quiet Space

Though most of the day is suitable for the open office, people need a change of scenery when tackling complicated tasks. There needs to be a space that’s guaranteed quiet for problem solving and creativity. Some companies have repurposed large conference rooms as a ‘library’ or quiet space. Any worker can use these rooms when they need to get out of the chaotic coworking space.

Reduce Office Chatter

Since office dialogue is the most distracting feature of the open office space, create some guidelines about when conference rooms should be used. Ask people to step away to a conference room if they are going to include 3 or more people in the conversation. This is especially true if the conversation will take more than a few minutes or rises above a whisper. Collaboration is great, but keep it separate from the open space..

Create a Culture of Balance

Open working spaces can be collaborative and foster innovation for many companies. Ultimately, the important thing is to give people choices. They need to be able to guiltlessly get away from the noise or hunker down on their own work when the time calls for it. Create a culture where this is the norm and your team will flourish.

What have you done to combat office distractions? Have any tips for your fellow readers?