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Four ways to work productively in open plan

Sep 22, 2019

Open plan offices get a bad rap, but with a few simple changes to the way you work, they can be great for team collaboration and communication, says Moira Dunne.

Most organisations have moved away from individual offices to create open plan working spaces. These spaces minimise boundaries between people and promote collaboration and teamwork. Teams can stay in touch easily and deal with issues informally as they arise. This helps to increase productivity and work throughput.

But for all the advantages of open plan offices, there can be down sides, too. Some common issues that can cause distraction and upset if not well managed include increased noise levels, frequent desk-visits by colleagues and noisy technology alerts. There are visual distractions too that tap into our natural curiosity  – if you are working hard but spot your teammates laughing, you want to know what’s going on.

All of this makes it hard to stay focused. To be productive in open plan offices we need to make some changes.

Take control

Take control by identifying the specific things that cause you to be distracted. Identify where you can make changes. Here are five tips to help you.

  1. Create a virtual wall

    Use headphones to block out the noise around you. However, listening to music or podcasts can be equally distracting; invest in headphones that are specifically designed to block noise.

    As noise-cancelling headphones effectively cut you off from the world around you, it is important to agree this with your boss. Consult your colleagues, as well, if you share responsibilities for answering phones or queries. Offer to take turns using headphones and cover for each other so that everyone gets some uninterrupted time to get important work done.

  2. Have a clear plan

    Planning is key to staying focused. Work in time blocks and set small targets. You are less likely to be distracted by conversations if you have a clear list of tasks to achieve. It’s about taking control: when you have a deadline to meet, you choose to stay focused; when the pressure is off, you choose to catch up with colleagues.

  3. Match task to noise level

    Examine all your work. Some tasks require a higher level of concentration than others. Plan to work on low-focus tasks when the office is at its noisiest (usually Friday afternoons!). Batch up these tasks and crack through them, while keeping on top of the general chat around you. Plan to do your high-focus work when you know the office will be quieter.

  4. Organise the space

    If you have any flexibility in this regard, try to maximise how your office space is used. Creating functional areas can increase concentration and reduce distraction, such as:

  • A collaboration table or desk
  • An equipment and supplies zone
  • A quiet corner for solo working

Aim to reduce the amount of traffic passing individual work areas. Which areas are noisiest with lots of passers-by?  Can all the equipment, such as printers and photocopiers, be positioned near the coffee station or the stationery cupboard?

Pool together ideas to give your manager so that, during the next office upgrade, the team productivity can be considered.

Embrace distractions

There will be things that you can’t control or change, but what you can control is your reaction. If we allow ourselves to react poorly to a constant noise, we can end up working in a state of permanent annoyance.

Accept the issue. Embrace it. Work around it. Use off-peak hours when you can. Book a meeting room. Take control, and own your time and your reactions.

Staying productive in open plan spaces is about taking control.

Moira Dunne is the Founder of