How to improve productivity in an open office

open office plan productivity

Most people either love or hate open-plan offices. The open office concept promises better collaboration and reduced costs (which is why many startups and millennials embrace it), but fewer walls also means a lack of privacy and more distractions. 

In this post, you’ll learn actionable tips for how to stay productive in an open office layout. Let’s start!

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1. Identify your work style

When your office setting is full of distractions, the first step to being more productive is to understand how you work best. Then, you can begin to make adjustments around your unique work style. Does being around other people energize you and make you more productive, or does it have the opposite effect? Do you work more effectively in the morning or in the afternoon?

You may not be able to change your office layout, but you might reserve a small conference room during your productive windows. Or, you might wear earphones and ask that no one interrupt you. Take the time to examine your own habits and energy levels, and look for any patterns.

Once you understand your work style better, not only can you play to your strengths; You can also communicate your needs to your teammates. Everyone’s different, which is why this first step is essential. 

2. Establish team norms

Swapping cubicles for an open floor plan doesn’t guarantee more in-person collaboration. In a recent study, two Fortune 500 firms used sensors to monitor face-to-face interactions before and after adopting open office plans. Face-to-face interactions actually dropped by 70%, while the use of digital tools like email and instant messaging increased.

Here’s one theory: “People in open offices create a fourth wall, and their colleagues come to respect it. If someone is working intently, people don’t interrupt her. If someone starts a conversation and a colleague shoots him a look of annoyance, he won’t do it again. Especially in open spaces, fourth-wall norms spread quickly,” says Ethan Bernstein and Ben Waber for Harvard Business Review.

Interruptions aren’t great for productivity, but neither is excessive email and messaging. The trick is to be deliberate with how, when, and why interactions take place. Ask questions like:

  • When are face-to-face interactions necessary?
  • When is messaging appropriate?
  • Where can team members take their phone calls?

Transparency when it comes to norms isn’t just great for fostering a collaborative company culture — it cuts down on the time spent deciding whether you should stop by someone’s desk or send an email. The mental dance of “Should I, or shouldn’t I?” adds up when you have to do it for every single interaction.

3. Set a weekly Focus Time goal

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: There aren’t a ton of universals in productivity, but one of them is that focus matters. Focus is important for all office workers, but especially so for those who work in an open office layout. When you don’t have a work environment that supports focus, what you can have is a system.

A great place to start is by setting a weekly goal of how many hours you’ll dedicate to deep work. Cal Newport (who literally wrote the book on the topic) defines deep work as: “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

Reserve a private room for a few hours and develop your deep work skills. You’ll knock out your most important tasks more efficiently, which means you won’t feel as much pressure and frustration when you have a hard time focusing in your open office workspace.

Bonus tip: Clockwise is a time orchestration platform that creates blocks of uninterrupted Focus Time in your calendar. Not magic, just AI. And it’s your best tool for hitting your goals, even when your office environment isn’t helping so much.

4. Take advantage of remote work

If remote work is available to you, leverage those work-from-anywhere days. Create your perfect setup at home, find a nice corner in a coffee shop, or plant yourself in a coworking space. (Some employers may even pay for a coworking membership as a cost-saving alternative to office space!)

On the days you escape your noisy office environment, deliberately work on what requires the most focus. You can save the less intense items and the projects that require in-person collaboration for the days you’re back in the office.

5. Manage your notifications

As we mentioned above, open workspaces can sometimes lead to an increase in the use of digital tools like email and instant messaging… which in turn can lead to too many notifications competing for your attention.

Protect yourself from notification overload by managing your notifications. Many of the most popular tools allow you to customize your notification settings.

Pro tip: For Slack, set a notification schedule. Or, use Clockwise for Slack to automatically turn on Do Not Disturb mode when you’re in a meeting or doing deep work.

6. Control your sound environment with the proper gear

You didn’t think we could leave headphones out of this conversation, right? If you work in an open office, headphones (or earphones) are a must. From noise isolating to noise canceling to transparency mode, modern headphones are designed to put you in control of your sound environment.

Research also suggests that certain types of music can help you focus. Check out classical music, ambient music, and nature sounds; and see if any of them have a positive impact on your ability to concentrate.

Next up, a few tips for employers who want to improve the open office experience for your employees!

7. Balance open office spaces with private spaces

Just because you’ve embraced the open office design doesn’t mean you can do away with private rooms entirely. People will continue to need a space to take their phone calls, managers will still need to conduct one-on-one meetings with their direct reports, and individuals may want to escape the open environment for an hour or two to do more focused work.

In this piece for Forbes, the writer (whose New York company had much success with the open office layout) recommends hiring an architect and/or designers who specialize in open office spaces. They can help you find creative solutions for how to make the most of your real estate, as well as figure out how many meeting rooms, workstations, and other spaces you might need.

8. Avoid hot-desking if you can

Hot-desking is the practice of not assigning workstations to employees. In other words, desks and seating are first come, first served. In this article, anonymous respondents (employees who work at an open office) describe hot-desking as causing anxiety and stress since they never know if they’ll get stuck next to a noisy machine or neighbor.

Bottom line: If you want to establish an open floor plan at work, avoid or at least limit hot-desking to certain areas.

Going forward

Whether it be a traditional office with cubicles and private offices, or an open office setting, there will always be advantages and disadvantages to any space. By shifting your focus to what’s in your control (i.e. the points above), you’ll fully draw on the benefits of an open office layout, while minimizing any damage to your productivity levels.

Also remember you have the right to bring your concerns to your manager. If you’d like to work from home more often, if your office needs more conference rooms, or if the open office layout just isn’t working for you and your team, then it’s time to be vocal. A great manager will take your concerns seriously, offer solutions, and prioritize employee satisfaction and well-being.

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Time Management