How to Be Productive When You Work in an Open Office

open-office-adjustmentReaders, do you have any tips for how to work productively in an open office? What advice do you have for someone struggling to adjust to one? Reader K wonders…

I’d love to hear your and readers thoughts about open office plans in the legal environment, such as in the recent article Google Got It Wrong: The Open Office Trend is Destroying Workplaces. In my job at a large non-profit that also has a legal help line, the lawyers, except for legal director, are in cubicles. 2 lawyers spend 1/2 their time doing phone intake. The rest do typical legal research and writing. I have asked about ways of reducing noise/less open space, but am told to just deal with it. My question is whether in the legal industry in general there is an expectation that lawyers should be able to have quiet spaces to work. Looking back on K-12, college, and law school, I always found quiet places to work, and was efficient. My teachers noticed that I was a great writer and really distractable, so they made sure I had a quiet place to work. Now, as a lawyer, I wish there was a quiet space I could escape to do my best work, like I did for 19 years of school. I’d take a pay cut!

Interesting question, reader K. I’ve worked in cubicles (back in my magazine days), a closed-door office environment (back in my BigLaw days), and an open-door office environment (back in my nonprofit days)… so I’ve never worked in a truly open office. While I’m really curious to hear what the readers say, I have a few ideas that may be of help:

  • Figure out what your biggest problem with the open office plan is. I can see three main possibilities:
    • Audio — as you say, you need a “quiet place to work.” Know your office, but could you possibly wear headphones and listen to music (or even just wear noise-canceling headphones)? Alternatively, could you have a fan at your desk that becomes white noise you can focus on instead of everything else going on?
    • open-floor-office-hellVisual — are you easily distracted by people moving and doing things in your field of vision? When I switched from a closed-door environment to an open-door environment, my desk faced the door and looked into the main room of our tiny office, where everyone gathered for discussions, lunch, and other projects that needed more space. I found myself incredibly distracted by everyone moving around, doing things, etc. (On the flip side, when I worked in a cubicle at the beginning of my career, I had no problem focusing — I faced a corner, so even though I shared the cubicle with two other girls, and had only a half-wall separating me from the girls working on the other side of the cubicle, it was all fine.) So: in your open office space can you find a spot that faces the door, or a quiet area that doesn’t get a lot of traffic? (NOT near the printer, the refrigerator, the water cooler, et cetera.) If you have an assigned spot, can you bring in something that blocks your view, like a large plant? Alternatively — and I’m serious about this — could you talk to your boss about bringing carrels into the space? Wayfair has a number of inexpensive ones, such as the one pictured ($135).
    • People and boundaries. We’ve talked before about chatty bosses and chatty coworkers, but I can see this being an even bigger problem in an open office, were it me. I’m one of those people who, once I get in my zone, can happily work for hours — but a question or interruption from someone just popping in can throw me off my game, tends to introduce other distractions (Facebook, I love thee so), and can make for a long road to get back to my zone. Beyond wearing headphones and responding to every question with something along the lines of, “Interesting thought, Bob. Let’s discuss it at 3PM today,” I got nothing — readers, what is your advice on discouraging chatty coworkers in an open office?
  • Seriously investigate flex time, or working from home. I have a few thoughts here: first, if the lawyers doing phone intake are primarily taking calls from 12-5, perhaps you can change your working hours to be 7-3 rather than 9-5. Then you’d only overlap a little bit with the people taking calls. Another idea: make a proposal to work from home a few days a week, or a few hours a day. Readers who’ve asked for flex time or permission to work from home, what are your best tips? (I’ve written my own tips for how to work from home effectively, as well as how to set up a great home office.)
  • Find a new job. It stinks when you have a job you like, and then some outside force — the commute, the office, the smells from the drycleaner next door, whatever — make you want to find a new job. Still: that may be the answer here if you’re really incompatible with the open office plan, and none of the above suggestions work.

Ladies, what are your tips on succeeding in an open office? Have you found any tips or tricks that worked for you?

(Pictured at top: Cadbury_Schweppes_08, originally uploaded to Flickr by K2Space.)


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  1. I’ve been mostly open plan my entire life but those few times I’ve shared an office with just one person were heaven.

    For surviving open space I recommend headphones and a few good classic playlists or nature sounds from YouTube. I find that I’m more easily distractable when I’m not at my 100% focus. So sometimes if you’re super distracted there’s nothing left to do other than get up and get a drink or some air to regain some focus.

    Also, sometimes I just find and book a meeting room if I really can’t take it or I’m working on something sensitive.

  2. My office is slowly converting to this model, and I really worry about it, so this is timely.

    As an introvert, I find open or even cubicle environments to be overstimulating. It’s worst when I can’t see who’s coming up behind me. But all of the chatter and movement and walking back and forth is draining for me. I don’t like to work with music, and although I could do noise-cancelling headphones, that exacerbates the anxiety about people creeping up on me.

    I currently have a nice big office with solid walls and a door. I keep the door open about 80% of the time. When I have something really intense to work on, or when my focus is slipping, I close the door and change position. Works wonders.

    As you note, there’s not much you can do if you hate working in an open environment, other than switch jobs…

  3. I am in an open plan and it is killing me. Near constant interruptions, loud conversations over the cubicle walls. Visual distractions. Killer for my adult ADD and as an introvert I need more peace. I would do anything for an office.

  4. I’m in cubicles in an area with a ceramic tile floor. It can be eerily quiet when people are out, but extremely noisy if there’s even one conversation going on.

    Headphones/iPod are my lifeline.

  5. There are different type of cubicles, but changing what your office has is a huge investment. I’m in an office, thank goodness, but the cubes outside my door are large and private. I’ve seen three people meet in one, and they’re all inside the cubicle, not hanging out in the row. I’ve even seen cubes with tall walls and sliding doors.

    When I worked in a cubicle, I had to enforce quiet by being a b!tch sometimes. Like when I was on a conference call and a director started chatting loudly to my whole row. I put the call on mute, hissed at him that I was in an important meeting and could he keep it down? After that, the stink eye worked to shush him.

  6. OMG this is my life right now. At my in-house job I was the first lawyer they ever hired, and I’ve been in a cubicle since I started 3 years ago. The company seems to assign offices to people who are big shots and not people who actually need an office to do their work. I had pretty much gotten used to the environment, but then they moved me to a cube in an even noisier, higher traffic location and I hate. it. so. much. My solution has been…ear plugs and working from home more often. It has made for some awkward interactions, but I’m kind of like, the heck with it. If they want me to be less accessible and less capable at my job, that’s their decision.

    I might start looking around in a few months if the situation doesn’t improve.

  7. I’ve done both an open office and my own office, with a closed door, but I’m a SUPER big fan of headphones. I leave my office door open most of the time, but I almost always have my headphones on, even if I’m not listening to anything. Something about having the headphones on makes me focus.

    The best tip, though, is invest in some good quality over-the-ear headphones. I used earbuds for a while, but people didn’t realize I had them in and would get offended when I didn’t hear them talking to me.

  8. My current office (in house) is open plan, but it’s hoteling so I can choose to sit wherever I want. The whole premise is that the work space matches your activity, not your seniority, so I can book an office if I have a meeting or if I just need a quiet place to work. I can also move away if I happen to have an ice chomper or loud talker sitting next to me. I also have flexibility to work from home as needed. I can reserve a workspace a week in advance, but can only book an office 1 day in advance at my level of seniority, but I can almost always find office space when I need it. I actually kind of like it!

    • Does that mean you have to take all of your stuff with you at the end of the day everyday? Are their lockers? Not sure how that would work with files and stuff.

      • I have a filing cabinet that I use for files and the (few) things that I keep at the office, but I actually like that it’s forced me to have a minimalist approach to what I keep at the office and schlep back and forth. I fit everything (including laptop and documents) that I carry back and forth in a longchamp le pliage, sometimes with separate lunch bag. I’m a contract lawyer, and I tend to mark things up on paper before redlining in Word. For the most part, I only carry the files I’ll need for that day and keep my past files in the filing cabinet and electronically in word documents. All of the desks, other than standing desks, have lockable drawers so you can also leave stuff overnight if you’ve reserved a desk for multiple days. They also have lockers that you can use for the day but you’re not really supposed to use them overnight.

        Also, my office isn’t traditional open plan because there are dividers between the desks. You can’t see over them when you’re sitting but you can when you’re standing. The dividers plus the office design do allow for some feeling of privacy.

  9. My summer internship was completely open officing, not even cubes. I found it so difficult!

  10. Meg Murry :

    I think it’s funny that we are growing up having more and more personal space – for instance, I read a statistic that something like 75% of incoming college freshmen have never shared a bedroom, and therefore colleges are building more dorms with singles – but then we get to jobs and are lucky to get a cubical instead of just a desk in a row.
    My newest job has an actual office with a door and I am SO.VERY.HAPPY about that. I will admit I learned a lot in my jobs where we all sat together because I was nosy and basically listened in on conversations – but I was so staying so late at those jobs, because the only way I could get my actual work done was to wait until 75% of the people had cleared out for the day. I’m pretty sure I accomplished more in that last hour a day than I did in the earlier 8-10 most days.

  11. anon non-law :

    I’ve worked in open office environments, cube farms & closed offices. The open environment was the worst, but that was more due to the boss than the environment. He would always use the phone near my work station (there were 3 work stations in my area–it was a small professional office) on speaker, and basically talk (shout) over me. He is a loud person to start with. I did find that open office was better at NOT letting me have other distractions (web, I’m looking at you). There was virtually no time (or privacy) for looking at anything non-work related. But, the work I was doing was pretty basic (didn’t require a lot of thought) so distraction and needing to concentrate wasn’t too much of an issue. It was akin to data entry/editing.

    Cube office: not bad. I wore headphones when I needed to concentrate, but the thing that I liked about it was the cooperative effort/feeling. Collaboration seemed easier than in closed offices. Asking a question (or answering one) didn’t take getting up from your seat.

    Closed office: my favorite by far. I enjoy having my own personal space. I am fortunate to have an office at the very end of a hall, so there isn’t much pass-by traffic. My office is also L-shaped, so you can’t even see if I am at my desk from the door. You actually have to enter the office to see my desk. This was very nice when I was pumping–because all of our office doors were full glass panels! They had locks, and I just would put a post-it on the door letting co-workers know when I would be available. Our office currently sounds like a cube farm, but looks like an office. We’re in an old industrial building with 20-some-foot ceilings. Our office walls only go up to about 14′, and then the rest is 100% open over top. So, I can hear my coworkers next to me and around me, but we’re behind sheetrock walls. This setup is noisier than a typical closed office, but nowhere near as annoying as a cube farm or open plan. I still wear headphones when I need to hunker down though.

    I agree that sometimes instrumental or nature sounds through the earbuds is the way to go for less distraction. If you have itunes, you can search their “radio” stations for classical, spa/relaxation, etc.

  12. I have ADD, and take medications to control the conditions. When I look for a new job, I am sure to check out what kind of workspace the company uses to warehouse the employees. Twice in the past 3 months I declined to move forward as a candidate for two positions precisely b/c they have an open office plan. My current job allows me to work from home and requires that I show my face in the office only once a week.

  13. Openly Anonymous :

    I work in a completely open (i.e. same room as several hundred people) office. At first it was super distracting, but now I’m able to zone/focus to the extent that when people approach me I get startled on occasion.

    I’ve always been able to read, do homework, and otherwise concentrate with other conversations going on around me, the TV going, etc. (grew up with a large family in a small house), but if you’re the type that needs quiet and no visual disturbances, I can’t see it working well for you long term.

  14. Cubicles are not the same thing as an open floor plan. An open floor plan has just rows of desks, often facing each other with nothing but your computer screen(s) between you and the other person. Plus the person next to you, and people walking around you. That is my current office setting (in a high-tech financial institution, they are all like this until you reach seniority and get an office) and it is terrible. I have no privacy, I don’t like wearing headphones and it is distracting even though I am on a relatively peaceful floor. I can’t imagine anyone enjoying this, except maybe a select few Google-type techies. I actually wish I had a cubicle, let alone an office!

    On the other hand, I’ve identified 3 cons to offices: 1) No one is watching you or can see your screen, so you have to have more self-discipline not to websurf, 2) you are not being as ‘plugged in’ to what people on the rest of the floor are chatting about (my boss in her office is often left out of the loop from those of us whom she manages, and 3) you are even further away from vitamin D sunlight and fresh air if you are in a window-less office.

    • In the ‘open concept’ office I work in, all the people that have actual offices work around the perimeter and take up all the windows. No vitamin D or sunlight for anyone working in the ‘open concept’ space here!

  15. anon a mouse :

    I have worked for years in an open or semi-open floor plan, and you do get used to it and figure out what works best for you. The best tip I have to offer is to get earplugs – when you are on the phone, it’s a huge help to put an earplug in your non-listening ear to minimize other aural distractions.

  16. Our office just moved to an ‘open concept’ floor plan a few months ago and it’s horrible!! Almost everyone in the office has actual offices around the perimeter, so basically taking all the nice window space, and then the ‘lucky’ 7 or 8 of us are stuck working in what seems to be more of a hallway with just desks. I do marketing so I used to take calls often to speak with vendors or staff at our retail locations but now I just email because I can’t think on the phone with all the noise.
    One person that sits in the desk near me has gas often, it’s embarrassing. The person sitting on the other side of me just starts talking to me about projects, regardless whether I look busy or not.
    Everyone that goes in and out to the bathroom in the halls or the lunch room usually stops to say hi- that’s a lot of people stopping to say hi very frequently! And I don’t want to be rude so of course I say hi and chat with them. I kind of feel like the person that sits on a fancy hotel elevator pushing buttons for the guests. They ask what the weather is like outside, if I know where so-and-so is, where they can find this or that, directions to local places, etc. You seriously can’t get your own work done this way.
    Since we basically work in the hallway, when the people that have offices decide to shout to each other from their individual offices through the wall while doors are open really increase the noise level.
    Headphones are ok for a short time, but my ears ache after awhile. Noise canceling headphones definitely hurt after a short time period for me and I end up with a headache after awhile.
    I’m trying to work from home more and more because I can’t stand it!
    I think I will start keeping boxes of merchandise at my desk so that I can stack them and try to get some privacy, even though we have a marketing closet that the items are suppose to be stored in.

    Whoever thought having an ‘open floor plan’ was a great idea obviously doesn’t work in one.

  17. Those of you who wear earplugs, do you find that they hurt your ears after a period of time? Any particular brands that work well?

  18. I want to second (or third) the recommendation to wear big, obvious earphones to discourage people from talking to you, even if you aren’t actually listening to anything.

    Do NOT spend the money on noise-cancelling headphones – they are engineered to muffle MACHINE noises (like jet engines) but don’t change how you hear voices at all. (I asked my friend the Bose engineer WTF was that about but didn’t get an answer). If some other company has made voice-cancelling headphone, please someone post a link, I’d be all over that in a second.

    Sit so you aren’t facing the cubicle opening (don’t catch anyone’s eye!) but so someone entering is visible to you so you aren’t startled.

    In earlier jobs, I’ve asked to work at home X days a week with the rationale that it’s extremely hard for me to do my best writing with constant noise and interruptions. In my field, it’s not unheard of to take a few “writing days’ at home and then be in the office the rest of the week for meetings and staff interactions.

  19. It's Just Business :

    Our company is switching from moderate privacy cubes to an open floorplan soon. I am actually pretty concerned about it! I cannot see myself working with so many faces in my field of vision. I am fine with headphones, however, how can one block the visual distractions? And what if a deskmate falls ill and is coughing, sneezing, et cetera?! How can we section ourselves off without looking bizarre?

    I believe any responsible manager/CEO would research and certainly conclude that this is not the type of work environment that professionals want to spend their time in. OPEN FLOORPLANS WON’T MAKE US LIKE GOOGLE! WHY ARE AMERICAN COMPANIES MAKING THIS THE NEW TREND???

  20. Big Corporate :

    I’m not only in open floor plan but also hot desking with 8 desks per 10 people on the assumption that not everyone will be in the office at the same time, without accounting for all the visitors we get. I hate it, despite being a reasonably social and focused person. I hide in an undesirable corner, and as much as I love music, wearing earphones all day every day make my ears tired (even without sound) and gives me a headache.

    Businesses are just saving money with these much cheaper open offices and expecting employees to make up the loss of efficiency on their own time.

  21. Open Concept Hell :

    Funny, this has caused me major grumpiness in recent weeks; the open concept is really getting to me, yet I have been doing it for years. It is worse when you have colleagues who regularly stroll around looking for conversations that you have no interest in participating in (because they are the same conversations over and over). And even when discussing work related issues, don’t do it quietly with the relevant person so everyone else has to hear the issues as well. I think this is one factor in leading employees to go postal.

  22. I have a lot of difficulty concentrating in open plan environments. They are great for socializing though! If its too noisy, I’ll usually just stop what I’m doing and join in on whatever conversation is going on. The most important thing is to not stress out because that’s bad for your health! I think it also helps to have some pampering items. I like to have good-smelling hand lotions, nice lip balms, a water bottle, little snacks and juices or soups, and a decent sized purse mirror. It can also help to sit in your car for ten minutes or so and text people. I feel that if I can feel relaxed and refreshed then I’m not so overstimulated by the busy-ness. Its also good to surround yourself with cute and funny things, like Persian kittens in boxes with bows on their heads. I like to read a chapter of Jim Gaffigan’s book “Dad is Fat”. It has really short chapters. I think the main idea is to feel good and have fun to trick your brain into not thinking you’re slaving away or stressed out. I also like to brush and floss in the bathroom after lunch because it takes a few minutes and slows you down, plus you feel clean and well cared for after!

  23. I’ve only ever worked in open-plan offices and…i dislike them intensely. I’d prefer the ability to sit with my colleagues in our own area (kinda open) but with privacy to block noise and distractions. The biggest problem with open offices is the zones incorporated into them to meet up with people…little sitting areas set amongst a floor plan. People eat their lunch steps from my desk, chat with their friends on a break and also meet with colleagues sometimes talking about highly confidential subjects in an open environment. Actually on reflection i’d be more comfortable with an open office environment if we were allowed to also evolve as workers also and that means not being chained to a desk – a laptop or ipad would go along way to solving all these problems when they arise.