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I work in a open plan office that houses about 50 to 60 people. It is mostly engineers at their desks working away, so it is a typical office environment. As you can imagine, sometimes, the noise and the distractions (visual and physical) can get in the way of focusing and doing work.

Sometimes, I try to get back focus by putting a set of headphones and listing to some music, or booking an meeting room for about an hour to work in private. However, these are sub-optimal.

What strategies are possible that I use to get focus back?

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Could you explain why headphones are sub-optimal? Is it because you don't want to block everyone out, or because listening to music is in itself a distraction? –  sheepeeh Apr 19 '12 at 14:21
While it touches on personal productivity, I thinks that this is on-topic for this forum as it deals with office environment and the source of the distractions is from office at large. I am asking for strategies that deals with the office that stop or reduce these distractions. –  tehnyit Apr 19 '12 at 14:34
Word of advice, don't call the site a forum... It makes certain people very angry ;) - On a serious note, I think you'll get far better answers on Personal Productivity than here, the core issue is a productivity one, the fact that you face it in your workplace doesn't make it a workplace issue (i.e. it's not an issue unique to the workplace). Think about what audience is more suitable to expertly answer your question... –  Yannis Apr 19 '12 at 15:27
I think there are some aspects that make it workplace-specific. One example is that you probably should not shut yourself out from your collegues in a way you would do if you were trying working on the train or in a noisy home-office. –  Owe Jessen Apr 19 '12 at 16:22

5 Answers 5

up vote 26 down vote accepted

I was at a conference recently where Sven Peters from Atlassian held a presentation on the subject "7 things that make good teams great", presentation available here. One of the advices related to this topic. What they did was to create a "Do not disturb" time. The idea was to set aside a certain time, like 14:00 - 17:00 where no interruptions where allowed. Phones were turned off, email clients were shut down and a "Do not disturb" sign was hung in the hall/door. If a question came up that needed discussion, they took it to a separate room.

This allowed them the advantages of a team sitting together in the same room, but at the same time they got a chance to get into that important workflow.

Update and edit with regards to the bounty:

The answers here cover partial solutions, some speculative. [...] I am again in this situation and some of the noise comes from neighbors (so "do not disturb" has limitations); I would like to see a detailed canonical answer that evaluates a variety of approaches.

I'm afraid the options are limited and the limitations depends on your physical work environment and what the company you work for are willing to do.

I'd say the solutions I've seen are a combination of these:

  1. Get everyone who wants it their own office. This usually isn't feasible at all due to the space it requires.

  2. Put people who must talk a lot (sales, marketing, support, bosses,...) in their own office. This is pretty standard, but leaves those who sometimes need to talk at their desk stuck in an open office disturbing those who require a quiet work environment.

  3. Place those who are easily disturbed in their own office. Very difficult to handle since it will result in jealousy. Also requires that there are enough separate offices for all those who want them.

  4. Accept that sometimes you will be disturbed and resort to minimizing the noise. I'd say this is the usual scenario. Those who find any noise a distraction are given headphones, earplugs or other ways to reduce the distraction. Not optimal at all.

  5. Discuss with others who share the open office regarding how to handle noise. Set up rules that all agree on. Such as; phones always on vibrate, leave the room before answering phones, no discussions in the room at all. If you all agree on what is allowed and not, it will be easier to follow them. This could evolve into have different open office room. One for those who are very easily disturbed and another one for those who don't aren't as bothered.

  6. Find a different company that has a different office environment and prioritizes differently.

If you are looking for a "silver bullet" that will solve all issues I think you will be disappointed. I think that the best you will find are alternative 2, 5 and 4. If that isn't enough you will need to consider 6.

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Putting sales people and engineers in the same room is just plain wrong. I think it can be discussed with management if they can see reason. –  Adam Arold Dec 4 '13 at 13:50
As a management-level decision, this sounds solid. On an individual basis, you'll get people who lament having such a short period of quiet time right alongside those who refuse to adhere to it because they simply 'cannot work that way'. –  Zibbobz Apr 2 '14 at 15:01

We have mostly open seating too. I share your pain.

You didn't mention visual distraction, but that can be a big contributor too. If you have any leeway at all over this, getting any sort of visual barrier can help immensely. You might not realize how much people walking by in your peripheral vision can distract you until you cut it off.

The biggest problem for most people, in my experience, is the noise. If your objection to wearing headphones is that you're substituting the distraction of music for the distraction of the office, try noise-canceling headphones instead. Some of my coworkers use them and they say it doesn't hinder them the way wearing earplugs would.

If the problem with headphones is physical, not what's coming through them, then see how the people sitting nearby feel about white-noise generation. It doesn't do much for the loud conversations, but it raises the floor some on what's enough noise to be distracting in the first place.

These are only partial mitigations, not real solutions. I suspect the only real solution involves not doing open seating, but that's out of scope.

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Thanks for the tip re visual distractions. Updated the question. Agree with headphones. I can only wear them for about 40mins, which I have to take them off. –  tehnyit Apr 19 '12 at 14:36
I don't like wearing headphones either. I already have computer glasses (that I switch to from my regular glasses); adding headphones to that would feel like it takes too much work to get up and walk down the hall. –  Monica Cellio Apr 19 '12 at 14:45

I have a nice set of custom in-ear headphones. Noise isolation without resorting to full-on noise-cancellation. The visual of employees wearing big headphones when visitors/clients come through is not a good thing (in some organizations).

To keep focus, I work in 25-minute blocks using a modified Pomodoro technique. It's an easy way to keep focus on specific tasks.

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Unless you have non-thinking tasks, I can't see how 25 minute blocks could work. It takes a good 15 minutes to "get in the zone" after each distraction. So out of every 25 minutes, I would only be getting 10 minutes of real productivity. –  Dunk Apr 19 '12 at 14:53
If your boss thinks it's unprofessional for people to wear big headphones in the office, he should give you a quiet workplace. –  MattBelanger Apr 21 '12 at 20:02

Headphones tend to make your ears hot, especially the closed-back type which is preferable in an office environment like mentioned. I also can only wear for a max of about an hour then it gets too uncomfortable which in itself is a distraction.

Also I tend to notice that the heat in these open plan environments is an issue as is the lighting. Right now it is nearly 25 degrees in our office and the humidity is extremely low at 25% making it feel hotter than it is. There are several overhead luminaries each with 3 or 4 fluorescent bulbs in them scattered every 2 or 3 feet of which I have had to ask to be switched off.

The lighting and air quality plays a massive part in your ability to concentrate for longer periods of time. I myself start to suffer from headaches in the office if i have concentrated for a prolonged period of time on something and I am convinced it is down to the lighting in the office as this does not happen to me when I work on my home computer.

The key is to take regular breaks to try and prevent wearing yourself out.

I find it is quite limiting what you can do in these circumstances. I too feel your pain.

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fyi extreme low humidity will make it feel cooler or the same as the temperature is. High humidity will make it feel hotter. Unless you're so dehydrated that you're red and feverish from sheer dryness. –  Michael Durrant Apr 20 '12 at 1:26

For the technical side:

I discovered that ear-bud type headphone is great for this. It kills noise pretty well even without anything going, and provides pretty good-sounding music. Without leaking to outside. And not really wearing on the head or ears. My only remaining problem is to pull them when I stand up or someone wants to talk...

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