How to Keep From Being Distracted in an Open Office

The popularity of open offices is growing as more companies want workers to be able to collaborate and communicate with ease.

The problem is that such open floor plans can at times resemble a frat party, Grand Central Station and the Dr. Phil show. Workers are sharing and collaborating all right – but also annoying the heck out of colleagues who are trying to get stuff done or don’t want to discuss ad nauseam the season finale of “Breaking Bad.”

Open offices also are found to be unhealthier for those who work there, bring less job satisfaction and make workers less productive. Consider this research:

  • Hong Kong Polytechnic University researchers say that sound is one of the most significant factors hurting office productivity, especially ringing phones, machines and conversation.
  • A study by The Sound Agency finds that workers are 66% less productive in open-plan offices than when left on their own to work.
  • The sound level of a noisy office with people sitting closely together can reach 80 decibels, which is bad news since a German study finds that 65 decibels is the threshold that triggers heart rate increases to heart-attack levels.
  • The Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health finds that workers in open offices had 62% more sick days reported annually than those in more cellular offices.
  • Workers can also become more stressed by constantly being called upon to help nearby colleagues. A study published in “Applied Psychology” finds that while those getting the help do perform better, those supplying the aid perform worse because they go through a cognitive overload being constantly distracted to help others and then trying to get back on task to do their own work.

So what can you do when you must function in an open office? The best way to boost your job satisfaction, health and production includes:

  • Using headphones. This is the most common strategy, but it’s more effective if you listen to instrumental music without lyrics since words can tax your brain. You can also consider a software like ChatterBlocker by The Sound Guy Inc.  that claims to block the distraction of nearby conversations by blurring recognizable speech “with a soothing blend of nature sounds, music and background chatter.”
  • Scheduling quiet blocks.  Aim for a couple of hours every day where you take your work and move to a quieter area. Let your colleagues and boss know what you’re doing and that you’re available for emergencies, but are taking the time to concentrate and focus. You might just generate a trend where colleagues begin to follow the same practice.
  • Not being too friendly. Having candy on your desk, collecting quirky gadgets and keeping restaurant menus from establishments within a 20-mile radius of the office are ways to guarantee lots of interruptions.
  • Stating the obvious. If colleagues are required to drop off expense reports to you every Friday, set out a basket that clearly labels what it’s for. This will save them from interrupting you with, “Where do you want this?”
  • Blocking your vision.  A strategically placed plant or a hat pulled low can help you stay focused on the work in front of you instead of glancing around and getting distracted.
  • Bring conversations to a close. If you can’t seem to disentangle yourself from a conversation from a colleague who wants to chat, try saying something like, “So, are we all done here?” or “This has been great, but I’m on deadline and I need to get back to work.”

Finally, you can influence others with your behavior and help them see that taking private phone calls on your break, speaking quietly to others and not gabbing continually to colleagues about non work-related matters isn’t difficult – but greatly appreciated.

If you work in an open office,  how do you handle distractions?

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  • Doug Johnson

    I recently started using the music at to help keep me in the zone. They claim to have science behind them and my results have been very good…to the point that I paid for the pro version…money where my mouth is, etc. etc.

    • Alex_IntuitQuickBase

      Thank you for sharing your tip!

  • EO

    Unfortunately none of these recommendations help. Even if you minimize the conversation, people around you won’t. Nothing is more annoying then listening to two people go on and on and on for hours. It seems like people think they are entitled to talk as long as and as loud as they can if it is work related.

    • Anita Bruzzese

      I read about success with the ChatterBlocker mentioned in my story. Have you tried something like that?

  • Ellis Thomas

    Distraction is a normal process in terms of the official picture. But it leads a great loss when there is distraction in the expense reporting as such which makes a great difference most of the way ahead. Not only the expense but everything related to finance.

    Most efficiently we look out for a better expense reporting and more with the approach in our office we have opted out for the expense reporting from Replicon – which is cloud and calender based and tracks each and every small expenses as well with full proved efficiency and manageability.

  • Rob

    Another issue I’ve had to deal with is when people around me are constantly eating at their desks. The sound and smell are very distracting – and the smell can’t be drowned out. I’ve complained to them but they just laugh and tell me to get used to it.

    • Anita Bruzzese

      Ugh. I know the feeling. The smell of popcorn from the microwave at 8 a.m. and garlic chicken aren’t pleasant. Maybe some nice potpourri on your desk or candle would help dissipate it faster?

    • JB

      I share an office with someone who just plain smells bad, 24/7, whether he is eating or not. I tried air fresheners but they give me a headache, and I am not sure that there is even a nice way to approach him about his stench, so I am learning to breath through my mouth during the whole 8-hr work day. Ugh.

  • Woon Chin Yeong

    thanks for the post. 🙂 i just realized all i need is instrumental music instead of my fav songs with lyrics. no wonder i kept getting headaches and having short attention span lately. (my work involves a LOT of reading)

    and also scheduling quiet blocks (currently practicing).

    • Anita Bruzzese

      I always listen to music while I work, but if I’m doing something really complicated, I need complete silence. The kind of music depends on the kind of work I’m doing. I immediately change it when I start to realize it’s annoying me!

  • King Lear

    I was a CFO at a insurance broker who was big into this open office concept. It was a disaster. One employee spent countless hours taking little league baseball, politics, and romance with the girlfriend. It was one of the worst places that I had ever worked.

  • Della Lai

    I was crazy busy at this month and I was always interrupted by some colleagues. The two points you posted-stating the obvious and bring conversation to an close- helps a lot. But sometimes I feel regretful after that. It seems I am not a nice person?

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