Many contemporary offices have adopted open plan office designs. These layouts can be a hotbed of disruptions and frustrations which impact on your productivity and wellbeing too. Research is now showing that open formats can result in a decline in productivity and don’t deliver on the promise to support collaboration. However, we’re unlikely to see partitions reinstalled and this layout altered any time soon. So how do we optimise our performance at work in open plan layouts?

Noisy colleagues & disruptive tech

When working with organisations who are experiencing issues with open plan formats, the most common grievances are noisy co-workers and disruptive technologies. A 2018 Udemy study called the Workplace Distraction Report revealed that 80% of respondents cited ‘chatty coworkers and office noise’ as their top workplace distractions1.

It appears the open design encourages interruptions, particularly digital distractions. Some open plan office spaces lack private areas for employees to complete tasks without background noise and distraction. They allow everyone to hear phone calls, the irritating hum and ping of alerts and notifications, and the conversations of co-workers who drop by colleagues’ desks for a chat. Employees frequently say their productivity is hampered by such interruptions. .

A little less conversation, a little more action

Open architecture also appears to have driven more digital interactions and less face-to-face collaboration. Recent research shows that open plan offices result in 73% less face-to-face interaction, and a 56% increase in email interaction (employees receiving 20% more emails and being cc’d on 41% more emails2). Use of instant messages increased by 67%3.  It is postulated that the distracting noise associated with open offices causes employees to tune out with their headphones. Instead, they resort to sending their queries to colleagues via email instead of standing in front of them.

The reality is that open plan formats are here to stay- traditional office partitions aren’t going to be erected. So what can you and your employees do to optimise your focus? Let me share some simple, science-back solutions.

Simple strategies

Establish team culture– have open conversations about expectations regarding interruptions and policies around sending instant messages. Come up with some accepted rules and parameters so people on a team are all aware of the common practices. Determine rules about how specific spaces are used and when they’re used. What are the policies on alerts and notifications (should they be silent)? Even small digital distractions can diminish our effectiveness. Can you schedule WIP (work in progress) or regular meetings where critical tasks can be discussed?

// Wear headphones– noise-cancelling headphones have dual benefits. Firstly, they send a fairly overt signal to your colleagues that you don’t want to be disturbed.  Secondly, they block some of the background noise that may otherwise distract you. Julian Treasure, chairman of The Sound Agency reported that adults have bandwidth for approximately 1.6 human conversations. So if you’re privy to someone else’s conversation, that’s consuming over half of your available cognitive capacity to process the conversation. This leaves only 0.6 available for your own inner voice. This is why something as trivial as background noise can be very frustrating and compromise our performance.

// Listen to music music can help to optimise our focus if it’s slow-paced (doesn’t have to be classical musica necessarily, but it should emulate your resting heart beat to have a calming effect), soft and familiar (our attention may be diverted to processing unfamiliar lyrics). When I work with corporate clients I suggest that they use binaural beats ( you can find playlists in Spotify)or

// Find acoustically sound rooms– are there designated quiet spaces where you can go so that you’re less likely to be disrupted? Can you book or use designated quiet spaces when you need to engage in deep work?

// Signal to your co-workers when you can’t be disrupted– The absence of physical walls means it’s very easy for colleagues to disturb you. Signal that you’re busy or engaged in deep work with a visual communication tool that explains that your’re unavailable or focused. Some workplaces, colleagues use coloured lights, like FlowLights. Other organisations go low-tech and literally put up a sign like this one.

// Plan when and where you’ll do your deep work– are there quiet areas in the office or rooms you can book where you can work with fewer interruptions? Perhaps you’re better off working at home, or in a cafe and then coming into the office when you’ve completed your most critical tasks, or tasks requiring deep focus. Where you have flexibility, try and map the best places for you to work in the office. As an organisation, have you designated different zones for different types of work and different needs? Are these communicated to all staff members?

// Select your days– are there particular days where the office is busier or noisier (perhaps it’s when Chatty-Cathy is in the office)? Can you nominate to work elsewhere (i.e. at home, in a cafe, shared work space, or perhaps another office) on those days, or perhaps book a meeting room so you can complete the deep work you need to undertake, free from distractions?

// Schedule your shallow work in your troughs and your deep work in your peaks- you can read more about working to your chronotype here. Basically, you want to build a fortress around your focus so that you can engage in deep work when your energy is at its peak and do more ‘shallow work’ when your energy is not at its optimal level.

// Declutter your space Our brain has a cognitive capacity. A bit like your computer hard drive has a maximum capacity, so too does your brain. Working in a cluttered space can cause your brain to become overloaded and you’re more likely to be seduced by distractions when you feel like this. A 2011 study in The Journal of Neuroscience  found that simultaneous, multiple stimuli in the visual field compete for neural resources. Put simple, working in a cluttered space was found to decrease productivity and increase stress (which further impedes your performance).

// Have a break– if you’ve been disrupted and let’s face it, this will happen from time to time, and you’re finding it hard to reorient yourself, take a break away from your desk. Use this time to do something that will revitalise your energy. We know that our impulse control wanes when we’re tired, so do something restorative like going for a brisk walk to a coffee shop, take some diaphragmatic (deep belly) breaths, or take your lunch break and head to the gym. You’ll be amazed at the difference in your attention after a break.

Interested in Dr Kristy speaking in your workplace or event about digital productivity?

1Udemy. (2018) Workplace Distraction Report.

Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1753), 20170239.

Bernstein, E. S., & Turban, S. (2018). The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 373(1753), 20170239.

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