Similar to the open classroom trend in the 1970s, open offices became a popular layout design in the 1990s and continuing to today for businesses wanting to increase collaboration, break down hierarchical barriers, and save on overhead (cubicle and permanent walls are more expensive than no walls). For all of their advantages, even the biggest proponents of the open office layout admit there are some downsides to their structure — no privacy, constant noise, usually messy (no one takes ownership of shared spaces), and endless opportunities for distractions.
I’ve worked in a few open offices, and have been able to experience their benefits and disadvantages over the years. I currently work in an open office, and greatly prefer the setup to the alternative. There are certainly distractions, though, and to keep them at bay I usually employ one (or more) of these methods for tuning out the noise when I really need to focus:
- Pick up and move. If you can find a quiet area of the building to retreat to for an hour or two, and the equipment you need to do your work can transport with you, head to the hideout. Conference rooms, lobbies, and the coffee shop around the corner can be good options for finding a little solace. You can’t run away for the whole day, or even days on end, but a short time away from the noise can be beneficial.
- Wear ear phones. Even if you aren’t listening to music, the ear phones act as a muffler and send the message to your coworkers that you don’t wish to be disturbed. If ear phones aren’t acceptable in your corporate culture, invest in a good pair of ear plugs to wear when you really need to focus. (To hear your phone when it rings, you may need to forward your office calls to your cell phone and then turn the ringer to vibrate.)
- Don’t go out of your way to have a super-inviting workspace, at least not all the time. Don’t have a candy bowl on your desk or wind-up toys or novelty gadgets. Keep supplies like staplers and sticky notes in your desk drawer so coworkers aren’t always looking to you for these materials. In other words, don’t tempt your coworkers with a reason to interrupt your work.
- Come in early. If you know you have a big project on your schedule for the day, come in an hour or two before the rest of the office. No one will email you, call you, or even know you’re there working.
- Have a clearly marked and empty inbox. If people know where they can set paperwork or materials so you will see them, they don’t have to hand you the items. Your coworkers won’t always use the inbox, but they can’t use it if you don’t have one.
Additionally, there are ways you can create fewer distractions for your coworkers:
- Avoid using speakerphone at all costs. Even if you’re the boss, no one likes listening to your phone conversations.
- Turn the volume down on your phone’s ringer and earpiece. Again, no one likes listening to your phone conversations.
- Don’t call out to coworkers. Get up and walk over to someone if you need to speak with her, unless there is some kind of emergency where yelling is appropriate.
- Respect the earphones. Email or instant message someone who is wearing earphones if your communication is not vital. Your coworker can respond when he isn’t focusing so intently.
- Use an inbox. If someone has an empty (or mostly empty) inbox, use it for paperwork or materials instead of interrupting her work.
Do you work in an open office? Have you ever worked in an open office? Share your tips in the comments for curbing distractions in an open office environment.