Three tips for being productive amid the hubbub of the open-plan environment.
The open-office workplace has become a staple in modern business — a taking down of walls in favor of cost-effective design and co-worker collaboration.
Indeed, about 70 percent of U.S. offices have some version of open floor plan, according to the International Facility Management Association, adopted en masse by tech giants like Amazon, Microsoft, Google and Facebook. So, is the shift going well?
Not according to high-performing employees.
HPEs want their space: 58 percent said they need privacy to solve problems, according to an anonymous survey conducted by enterprise software strategist William Belk, and 54 percent characterized their current workspaces as “too distracting.” A separate study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology reported that the “benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.”
For all their intended value, open office spaces don’t promote productivity, and yet, thousands of employees are still expected to perform. If you are among them, here are a few promising strategies to help you focus.
Listen to classical music
Tuning out office clamor is tough, especially when co-workers aren’t necessarily aware of their own noise pollution. “The main challenges we face are interruptions and distractions,” says Thomas Stearns, a project manager for a Seattle-based construction firm that adopted an open-office floor plan. “It’s difficult to concentrate due to walls not being full height. Other people may be talking loudly, on a conference call — or maybe you’re on a conference call — and there is too much background noise.”
In the case of the former, donning noise-canceling headphones can provide a physical barrier that keeps distractions at bay — and your playlist should include classical music.
A 2012 French study published in Learning and Individual Differences, a peer-reviewed academic journal, found that undergraduate students who listened to a one-hour lecture where classical music was played in the background scored significantly higher when quizzed on the material compared to students who attended a lecture without music. The authors of the study suggested that a calm learning environment allowed students to focus, and the same can be true for workers in an open office environment.
Eat lunch alone
The constant interaction propagated by an open office environment can be exhausting for everyone, as evidenced by a 2012 study. Researchers tracked 48 students at Finnish universities to gauge the effects of consistent social engagement, characterized as “conscientious behavior.” The study found that extroversion and conscientiousness made students feel happier in the moment, but all participants felt tired and fatigued three hours after interaction, regardless of whether they identified as having extroverted or introverted personalities.
Using your lunch hour to take a break from forced socialization and stimuli can calm and refocus the mind, allowing you to feel more motivated and productive in the afternoon.
Set boss-approved boundaries
“It’s too easy for people to walk into your workspace and immediately start talking and asking you questions,” says Stearns. Setting professional boundaries with co-workers is contrary to the open-office concept, but your comrades — particularly, your boss — may be open to it if the result is a boost in productivity. A University of California, Irvine study reported that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus after being interrupted, which can drain the workday with multiple stalls.
Consider proposing a meeting to discuss space-related issues to find ways to help one another adapt. In Stearns’ case, his office is experimenting with individual “Do Not Disturb” signs that can be used for moments of disconnection.
“The understanding is that if you walk into someone’s space and that sign is up, you are not allowed to say anything to them. Instead, you write a note to them on a sticky and put it by their sign,” he says. “For some of our teammates it has been a real struggle for them to accept that whatever issue they are facing isn’t the entire team’s priority.”
The open-office concept isn’t going away, and in the absence of company leadership, the task of maximizing productivity falls to the employees, a challenge that Stearns accepts with an air of optimism, if, for no other reason, than an increased sense of community. “Being able to walk by someone’s space and see them, even if they’re busy, seems to create an environment where everyone is more connected — for better or worse.”