Curbing distractions when you work in an open office

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.

31 Comments for “Curbing distractions when you work in an open office”

  1. posted by Jen on

    In my experience, people with their own offices seem to be less considerate when navigating open office space.

    One of my office pet peeves are my fellow open office employees who play their radios at their desks. It seems to be very commonly accepted as part of office culture, but I find it incredibly grating and distracting. I have, at times, grabbed my work and taken it to an empty conference room if there was something I really needed to concentrate on and couldn’t. I often listen to music or podcasts if I’m doing something mundane and boring, but it’s always through ear buds.

  2. posted by Jen on

    Sorry, I didn’t mean that post to be antagonistic. I know a lot of people focus better with music on. I’m just not one of them.

  3. posted by Laura on

    Jen…I totally got what you were saying. It IS annoying and grating to have to listen to someone else’s music at another desk. The volume is usally just *off* enough to be just more background noise.

    I agree with not using speakerphone, but a pet peeve related to that — people who hit speaker to dial but then pick up their phone to talk. I don’t want to listen to a loud dial tone and the tones of a dozen other digits being pressed and then even the call ringing through either. It’s plain thoughtless.

  4. posted by Brandon on

    I have a very open office. It’s actually an interesting situation.

    I work on our company’s Continuous Improvement team. Several months ago I really started to pay attention to the cultural barriers between our office and shop floor employees. The handoff between engineering and production and communication thereafter need a lot of work.

    A couple months ago I decided to do a “Mythbuster” project. Years ago I worked as a drafter for the company and wanted to see what it would be like to draft from the shop floor. Would this unclutter our handoff process? Would it improve relations between engineering and production. Long story short, It has worked out well so far.

    The biggest drawback is being able to focus. I don’t have as much distraction from co-workers talking but there is the constant humming of the machines that leaves my ears ringing by the end of each day. I have noise canceling headphones but they only do so much.

    And the sawdust! It’s EVERYWHERE! I do a routine clean 2x a day and still can’t keep up with it.

    Has anybody else experienced something similar? I would appreciate any and all suggestions on how to work in this noisy and dusty environment.

  5. posted by ajeanne on

    The only good things I can think of about open offices is 1) they are cheaper for the company (at least in the short run) and 2) micro-managing bosses have a better chance of watching over their employees.

    As for the cheaper part… I’m guessing they are not less expensive in the long run for employees who must concentrate to do their work. As Erin has said, above, the open office environment is fraught with distractions, which we know can very much slow people down who are “knowledge workers,” i.e., they generate money with their brains.

    Having worked in such environments, I can safely say that they slow many people down by at least half, if not more. So take all those salaries & cut them in half. Multiply times however many people are affected for a year, two, three, five, ten. Then imagine if the company had just spent a bit more money to put folks who must concentrate for hours at a time in quiet offices with doors that shut.

    If you have a group of people who do not have to concentrate on writing or designing something, then they can probably work in cubes & that could be okay. For example, customer service folks who talk on the phone and answer reasonably simple email messages can work in an office where there’s a dull roar of other people doing the same thing. Even so, there’s a cost to the stress of tuning out distractions, and I often wonder if it doesn’t exceed the savings of putting everyone in cubes.

    As for micro-managers, they should probably find other work, but even if they don’t, they should find a way to judge the output and results of their employees rather than whether they look like they are busy or not.

  6. posted by Jenna on

    It’s also important to remember all of the digital clutter that we’re faced with in the workplace these days. Emails and instant messages, if they’re more often used in your office, can be even more distracting than phone calls or visits from coworkers. I turn off all pop-up alerts regarding emails. If I’m working intently on a project, the last thing I need is to be constantly distracted by incoming emails – most of which aren’t urgent. I make sure to stop and check my inbox at least once every hour or two. Doing that gives me control over when I read the email, instead of letting those pop-ups dictate how I use my time.

  7. posted by Meg on

    I work in an open office space and we are not permitted to use earphones. However, it’s a very quiet space. Our supervisor really frowns on superfluous conversations and we use IM to talk to people from across the room.

  8. posted by brenda on

    For yourself:
    1) Put things in the guest chair; people can’t sit down and take up your time
    2) Post signs: “Deadline coming up” “Thinking hard” “Returning calls” so that coworkers know you’d rather not be disturbed

    For your coworkers: Take YOUR social business somewhere else.

  9. posted by Kris on

    I work in a version of this–a small office with three people in it (and they will eventually add a fourth). We try really hard to be courteous; we take phone calls out into the hallway if we can, and headphones are always respected. If we need to talk to each other and we have headphones on, we’ll just IM each other even though we’re a yard apart. I also take my laptop off to another building that has a “touchdown” space on a regular basis.

    It is a significantly less than ideal workspace for me, but it’s better than the previous space which was physically smaller and more uncomfortable. I really dislike not having a good space to make phone calls from without bugging people/having them overhear me making appointments.

  10. posted by Mletta on

    Ajeanne
    You are so right. As someone who has tried to work in open offices, on tight deadlines where I need to focus, write, edit and THINK, it’s been a nightmare.

    The worst, and I’m not sure it’s been noted in the comments, is not just the radios and computer sounds (streaming of videos, audios, etc.) is the seemingly constant conversation (forget the level) of some employees. Some people seem to just need to talk ALL THE TIME.

    It is more than distracting. I and others are highly sound sensitive. At times, I have found myself typing the conversations I’m hearing as my brain is picking up on them! And the noise of machines? Deafening at times.

    The “bosses” who advocate for open-offices only think they are saving money. They are not. People need peace and quiet to think and focus, especially when doing work that needs to be right the first time. We pay a lot of money to correct errors that are made and not caught in the first “stages” of production. It’s costly, but management just does not get it. Those errors increased when the company switched from closed to open offices.

    I see no merit to open offices. And I especially hate the justification that it “increases communication.” and teamwork. No, it does not. Because who in their right mind would ever discuss anything important with a boss or co-worker in public? And the ongoing distraction of constant conversation (whether on phones or talking to other people on the floor) is beyond annoying.

    As you noted, open offices are often started so people can micro manage and also to basically ensure that folks don’t make personal calls or otherwise engage in non-work behavior. (If you have to physically watch people to ensure they work, you have the wrong people and YOU have mishired!)

    One of the worst setups I ever experienced was on a publication where the sales staff (which lives to talk on and off the phone!) was placed next to editorial (who generally have trouble writing in the middle of a floor filled with noise and people) and then, the design department, who could only work if they played music loud enough to be heard two floors away. And, yes, nobody said anything to them because the top bosses (who were on another floor) did not care about other workers.

    Ironically, I worked in a small office with mini-offices that were shared by two people (and one open space) for the staff and there was more attention paid to maintaining silence and keeping noise down. These staffers were acutely aware of their behavior and how it could impact others. Maybe it’s not just the size of space or its configuration, but the professionalism of the staff!

    For some people, “open office” means “anything goes.” Ugh.

    And FYI: People who are gonna waste time on personal stuff (beyond a normal call or two a day) are STILL gonna do that. They just go off to the conference rooms (and tie them up!)

  11. posted by Sharon on

    I have been working for 10 years in the corporate headquarters of one of the largest companies in the U.S. We each have offices with doors and speakerphones. Three years ago the department began replacing older workers with Gen Yers. They all use the speakerphone on LOUD for all their calls, including dialing, and never close their office doors. I spend much of my day with mine closed to shut out the noise. I truly believe they do it to appear important. It was not the custom prior to their joining the group and they did not start out that way. Very annoying.

  12. posted by Jen on

    Lots of speakerphone peeves! Sometimes I answer the phones at work, and I am baffled and irritated by people who call our office, but only pick up the receiver after I’ve answered the phone. Some of my coworkers, when dialing other people in the company, use speakerphone, and end up literally yelling in the general direction of the phone to communicate. I don’t know what it is about it…people feel the need to use it all the time because it’s there, even when it’s completely inappropriate.

  13. posted by madonnaearth on

    The worst for me is coworkers’ ringing personal cell phones. And it always seems they’re two offices away when it starts.

  14. posted by Angie on

    I work in a school library that has no walls. Yes. That’s right. It’s so fun to be trying to teach 25 third graders when 300 people are walking through. Most of the time they are actually trying to pay attention but they are eight. When their friends walk by they want to wave.

    And when I don’t have classes it’s hard. I’ll be trying to work on a book order or a lesson plan or shelving when someone will need something. Real library need? Cool. I’ll totally drop everything and help. That is part of my job. Someone walking through just wanting to chat? Hello? Please? Can you not hear the child crying in the hallway right outside the 600 non-fiction section and the teacher trying to determine who pinched who first? Or, on bad days, the screaming child being led into the principal’s office? Or the staff members or parents holding loud conversation in the biography area even though there are students trying to read? We can chat in the lounge. Right now I”m trying to work and I’m not allowed to wear headphones. :X

    Sorry. Hit a sore spot here with that whole “open” concept. Rubbish. It is fun on days when new book orders are put on display … hearing the kids all day oohing and aahing. Pretty much every other day it’s a major pain in the neck. Thank you for the suggestions like a hard copy inbox. Seems so simple now but I’m totally trying it.

  15. posted by Carla on

    I work as a developer at a Fortune 100 company. My team of about 35 people is in an open space, and we love it. I’ve never worked in a cube, and I never want to. And programmers are the sterotypical guys who want to sit in their cubicle caves and never talk to anyone!

    None of us have actual landline phones, so the speakerphone thing isn’t really a problem. What is funny is when there is a production problem, our cell phones all receive a text message alert. Since we all sit in the same room, it is rather amusing to suddenly hear a chorus of beeps and rings from the phones.

    While there definitely are more interruptions, we are still far more efficient in the long run. If I have a question about requirements, I just turn around and ask our business analyst. If I have a technical question, I just ask the developer sitting next to me. If I don’t understand a defect, I walk over to the tester sitting about 10 yards away.

    On top of all that, by innocently “eavesdropping” on conversations going on around me, I gain a better understanding of our product and why a decision is being made. Often, I find that someone has important information to contribute to the conversation that would have been missed because no one would have thought to invite them to the meeting.

    And it is a bit harder to just slack off at your desk. You feel rather uncomfortable surfing the net and playing Solitaire when you have lots of people walking by. If you do need to make a personal call, you just walk to the break area.

    Another benefit is that working in one room together really does improve your team bonding. There are people on our team that I would barely interact with day-to-day if they didn’t sit in the same room with me. As a new person on the team, I learned what everyone’s roles are much faster than if I just interacted with them when I had some particular need. Plus, there is almost always someone around to answer your question, instead of bothering the same person every time.

    I agree that it is difficult sometimes when you really want to concentrate, or want to access private information (like your online paystub!) when you are surrounded by lots of people talking. It is important to have another location that is designated as a “quiet area” to go when you have those needs.

    My suggestion for curbing distractions is to have an aisle on one side of every person in the room. Our original layout was rows of tables with two people on one side and another two people across from them. That way each person had a person next to them on one side and an aisle on the other. This provided some breathing room and pathways through the room to walk. The other major benefit is that if someone needs to ask you a question, they can sit in the aisle and not be in your neighbor’s space.

    Unfortunately, recently the company decided that we needed to have more ergonomic seating. They replaced our tables with “adjustable” desks that are all connected. No more aisles. The noise level has definitely gone up, and it is really annoying to have to walk all the way to the end of the row and around to look at the screen of the person who sits two feet from you across the table. Ah, well.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, but I had to defend the open office. It really has been a major part of my ability to learn so much in only 1.5 years on the team.

  16. posted by Emilie on

    As for the merits of open-plan offices, I think it depends on your industry and if/how the people in your office are working together. I used to work at a non-profit in an open-plan office that was also very over-crowded, and “distracting” would be an understatement. There was nowhere to “escape”. The open plan ended up being strangely isolating, as I was the only person at the organization performing my job, sort of a one-person department. I wasn’t part of a team, to my dismay, and being in a sea of people had no benefit to me.

  17. posted by Puppies4Life on

    I work in an open office with multiple departments in the same space so there are a lot of distractions. When I need to seriously focus I will wear a hat low, put my headphones on, and get to work. The hat helps keep visual distractions to a minimum and the headphones take care of any audible interruptions.

    Plus people tend to leave you alone :).

  18. posted by Steve on

    My experience of open-plan offices seems to run counter to many of the comments. In my previous job, the company started out open-plan. Everyone co-operated, was friendly and got the job done well and on time.

    However, my boss at that time didn’t like people speaking to each other, the odd office banter and the like. Despite protest, she began to split people up into separate offices as she got the chance. The result was a nightmare…work productivity dropped, people stopped getting on, it was like working in a viper’s nest! But that’s how my boss wanted it – divide and conquer to micromanage. Now like me, most of the original employees have left. The company has exceptionally high employee turn-over in comparison to other small business so something is clearly wrong!

    I work in an open-plan office again now and I prefer it. Whilst my job is ‘brain-based’, I am more productive in this environment. I wear headphones if I don’t want to be disturbed at all or go to one of the meeting rooms. My co-workers are considerate and we all get along.

    There are many different ways of working. Some love open-plan, others hate it. I’m surprised by the many negative comments on here relating to both – don’t people visit a place or evaluate the working conditions before taking on a new job?

    For me clutter comes in many forms, negative thoughts are one of those. Why would you clutter your working day with so much negative mental clutter about your work situation? If you don’t like the way a company works, there are many choices to change it, change yourself or change your job.

  19. posted by Lola on

    Great timing! I have just moved to an open office. This is temporary (8 months) while renovations are made in my building. When we move back that will be an open office too. Many of my co-workers are concerned about all the changes. All tips on how to adjust and not make your co-workers hate you are greatly appreciated. Thanks,

  20. posted by Vanessa H. on

    @Erin: I’m confused. I thought you work from home-?

  21. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Vanessa — I do work from home, but I’m not alone! There are always two of us here, but sometimes more. Back in 2007, we had four of us working in our one bedroom apartment every day.

  22. posted by localhost on

    A couple of years ago I worked in an open office space, together with 7 colleagues. I managed to stay focused on my own tasks, whilst at the same time paying attention to when someone was telling funny jokes or asking who to redirect this or that call to. In fact, the only thing I felt was a problem was the noise, because we also had a lot of people walking through the room, opening and closing doors. I was once asked by a customer on the phone, if “we were having a party in the office?” โ€” but that was just the sound of a normal, busy workday. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The distractions seemed quite manageable, compared to the advantages of the close setup.
    I was in the sales dept., but at the desks right behind me were two purchasers, which meant it was easy for us to collaborate on urgent matters.

  23. posted by [email protected] on

    For the history of the devolution to open offices, PeopleWare is a must read. When I worked at my best job ever, they actually bought us each a copy of the book and I still have it.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P....._and_Teams

  24. posted by katrina on

    I’ve worked in open offices for the past 20 years and, while the occasional partition or 2 has popped up, generally most staff get along OK.

    While Erin’s hints of signs etc may work for some, if I tried that I’d be counselled by my manager for morale damaging behaviour or not being part of the team. …Unless I made the signs funny with cartoons or silly comments. eg. Danger – two brain cells in use, excessive noise may cause explosions.

    We tend to be open about discussing our work styles. Perhaps its because of the Australian approach that we generally work to live rather than live to work. Or perhaps its the culture of saying things openly rather than writing them at work is that.

    For example – radios, speaker phones, etc are not appreciated outside of meeting rooms and project offices. The way most people on my floor deal with a speaker phone is that its an open conversation so anyone can join in. And they do – usually on a personal call by answering the person on the speaker.
    eg. “Don’t forget to pick up some milk on the way home?”
    Team mate butts in just loud enough for the caller to hear, “Thanks for reminding me.”

  25. posted by katrina on

    P.S. Oops. Sorry Erin, I falsely accused you. It was Brenda who mentioned the signs.

    Doh!

  26. posted by Amanda on

    As far as speakerphones go, I just really hate phones. I hate holding it up to my ear at all. I’m impatient as well. I want to be able to keep using my hands to shuffle papers around while the phone rings. I have the speaker volume low and pick up the phone when someone answers. Not trying to look important or annoy people. Younger folk have just grown up with multitasking and speed drilled into us from every direction. So from all of us to you. So sorry. We’re really not trying to annoy you old fogeys (:P).

  27. posted by pat hufford on

    nothing worked
    so, i retired
    that worked
    hee hee hee

  28. posted by danielle on

    Speaker phones are from the devil!! Hate them. I much prefer my cordless headset at work…handsfree and fairly comfortable!

  29. posted by Ryan - iloveunclutterer! on

    Open office cubes help accountability but hurt productivity. As far as which one trumps the other, open office cubes are worth it because people in office settings tend to need more accountability/supervision since they are typically doing jobs that comes 2nd to what they’d really want to be doing. With that said, people will always find ways (screen protectors, internet tabs, etc.) to get around the accountability idea. Therefore, do what is the most economical for your business & works with your culture, & force your employees/colleagues to follow the tips (speakerphone, volume, earphones, inbox) noted in this article!

  30. posted by Cassie on

    Our suite area consists of cubicles in the center and offices along the walls. The cubicles are fairly open – it’s basically a long rectangle with a short divider in the middle to create two separate cubes with no 4th wall whatsoever. At least the previous cubicle arrangment afforded a tiny bit of privacy (with a partial 4th wall).

    Ironically, it’s the people in the offices that create most of the noise in the suite. One guy uses his speakerphone for all his calls (even personal ones) and he talks loudly. Another girl talks and laughs loudly in person and on the phone (and uses phrases like “shut up!” when she’s teasing whomever she’s talking to). And people have their cellphone ringtones on a high level so we get to hear everytime one of them gets a text message.

    When one of the office dwellers goes to talk to another office dweller, the visitor just stands in the doorway and talks. Or they’ll stand in the walkways between the offices & cubes to chitchat, or even in the cube area. I can’t understand why they do this – you guys have offices! With doors! Why can’t you use them?!

    Maybe it’s because I’m not a loud person to begin with (especially at work) but why can’t people tell that they talk and laugh loudly? Be a little considerate and lower your voice – I don’t need to hear your thoughts on last night’s episode of The Bachelor.

    There is always a constant buzz around and it is so difficult to concentrate, especially when I have to listen to three or four conversations overlapping. Last Friday (Good Friday) and yesterday were great days – a lot of the office dwellers were out so it was so quiet and nice ๐Ÿ™‚

  31. posted by Anne on

    I’ve recently moved from an cubicle-only office with 30+ people to a job where I have an office with a door and I was shocked by how much my productivity went up. I have always hated cubicles for how much they make me feel like a cog in a machine. (I suppose that’s the intention of them though, isn’t it?) However, I had no idea how much I could get done when I wasn’t constantly hearing the clicking of others’ keyboards and people walking behind me.

    I’ve become an utter advocate of offices for people who have to do individual intellectual work, eg writing, idea creation, solo problem solving. Sadly, this office is moving to an open plan in a few months and I am not looking forward to the drop in my productivity I know will come.

    Why can’t we have mixed offices where the people who work well in open plan have that and the rest of us are not forced into it? Would that not be a more efficient system in the long run?

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