How to Keep From Being Distracted in an Open Office

Oct 14, 2013
6 Min Read

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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