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How to stay focused in a noisy open office

Working in a workspace without walls? Combat the constant chatter and chiming cell phones with these expert strategies.
Image: busy office
To put the kibosh on constant coffee klatsches in your workspace, have an open dialogue with your colleagues about boundaries. fizkes / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Open-plan offices or workspaces (which comprise approximately 70 percent of American offices) were designed to encourage collaboration and engagement, but a 2018 study called “The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration” has caused a bit of a rethink. “Rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM,” the study reads.

Another study of 456 employees in 20 regional office locations of an architectural firm published in Frontiers in Psychology, also found the negatives of shared workspaces to outweigh the positives. The architects and designers reported “significantly more unfavorable working conditions in terms of acoustical privacy, workplace effectiveness, attractiveness, and satisfaction compared with those working in the private offices, and, not surprisingly, they found it “significantly” more difficult to concentrate.

“The biggest challenges of working in an open-plan or shared workspace are open conversations, meetings in the open, stinky food, stinky people, dogs demanding attention, people interrupting, and over-scheduling that leads to stress, which is distracting in itself because it (also) makes it hard to focus,” says Alan Ibbotson, founder of The Trampoline Group, a consultancy that works with companies on leadership development and employee engagement.

That stress Ibbotson is referring to was examined closely by researcher Greg Laurence, Associate Professor of Management, University of Michigan-Flint — he just refers to it as “emotional exhaustion.” Along with a few colleagues, he conducted a 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology examining how these types of workspaces and personalization of them impact emotional exhaustion at work.

“Emotional exhaustion is defined as a feeling of being overwhelmed and fatigued (generally by work, and in particular for our work, by the work environment),” Laurence told NBC News BETTER. “People generally report higher levels of auditory and visual distraction in open workspaces. Of course, some people are able to focus better than others. For others, there’s distraction just because they see others moving around or gathering to talk or whatever.”

Make it clear you need to work with no distractions for a while. Headphones in? Don’t bother me! Sleeves rolled up? That’s my ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign! Take charge, don’t just surrender to your environment and complain about it.

Alan Ibbotson, founder of The Trampoline Group

Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist in New York City, says a loss of focus means your brain has shifted into a default mode. “Neurologists have identified networks of brain structures that become active during times of distraction such as daydreaming, reminiscing, or general inattentive activity. Other brain networks identify even the smallest occurrence such as a phone ring, a vibration, or a person walking in the door and divert attention away from our current task. Some people can go right back to their task; others linger in observance until they drop into inattention,” she explains.

Here's how to focus in a workspace without walls

As it’s more than likely your office won’t put up walls anytime soon, there are some things you can do to improve your ability to focus with so many distractions.

1. Ask yourself if the space is really to blame

A lack of focus can point toward self-management issues that can lead to self-sabotaging behavior, such as a propensity to procrastinate (hello, personal texts and Instagram!), says Ibbotson. To take control, he suggests using anti-distraction software, turning off all notifications, signing out of any unnecessary browsers and apps, and just keeping a clear desktop with one task or project open. And, above all, put your phone away. “Manage the expectations of friends and relatives so they know not to bother you at certain hours of the day,” says Ibbotson. “Designate lunch as text or social media time.”

2. Try not to multitask

Ibbotson says it’s usually easier to focus on one task at a time than toggle between three. “Jumping from one thing to the next is a form of self-sabotage that can ensure you leave with nothing completed at the end of the day,” he says.

3. Take control of the noise factor

Hafeez says loud sounds and blinking lights can really do a number on your ability to concentrate. “Minimizing these distractions is a sure way to ensure no outside forces will break your focus,” she says. Every expert interviewed extolled the virtues of noise cancelling headphones, so keep a pair handy — and music without lyrics can work best. Need utter silence for a while? Book a conference room or negotiate the ability to step offsite and work from home, a library, or somewhere else private, recommends Laurence.

4. Keep your eyes on the prize

“Glancing through your to-do list and marking off what you've accomplished can help stimulate the brain to focus,” suggests Hafeez. “Once you're centered and have your task delineated once more, address the distraction. Ask your coworkers to give you a half an hour to finish an assignment before starting up a conversation again, ask the chatting team members to keep it down across the room, or ask a technician to change the flickering light bulb that keeps straining your attention,” she says.

5. Establish interpersonal boundaries

To put the kibosh on constant coffee klatsches in your cubicle, Ibbotson suggests an open dialogue about boundaries. “Make it clear you need to work with no distractions for a while. Headphones in? Don’t bother me! Sleeves rolled up? That’s my ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign! Take charge, don’t just surrender to your environment and complain about it,” he says, adding it can help to protect the quiet time of your co-workers, too. “Work with people to create boundaries that work for everyone. Usher people away diplomatically if they’re in Jonny’s space during his quiet time. Help Jonny succeed and he’ll likely return the favor.”

6. Take five and clear your mind

“If you feel your attention slipping, or you’re reading something for work and find you didn’t retain what you just read, take a small break to meditate, catch your breath, practice mindfulness and get back to the task at hand,” says Hafeez.

7. Offer a solution

If incessant distraction remains an issue, speak to a human's resources professional or voice your concern at a company meeting to suggest, quiet designated areas, quiet designated times, and or other office policies that account for the distractions that can come from a collaborative open-plan office space, says Hafeez.

Until those solutions are established, lean on your headphones. “You can write a book in the middle of Times Square if you like,” says Ibbotson. “Stop giving yourself excuses and you’ll get more done.”


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