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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
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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
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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
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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
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If you're working with flexdesks (everyone can sit and work where they want), you could propose to management to reserve certain sections for "collaboration" (meetings, discussions, pair programming, working in teams) and "concentration" (solitary work, no distractions, no telephones/sounds/talking). They'll soon see where most people are sitting and can reserve more room for the "popular" spots. – Konerak Apr 5 at 14:17
up vote 37 down vote accepted
+200

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.

Update:

There are several ambient noise generators, such as noisli that create a background noise which may help you focus.

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+1- Great answer. It gives not only me some focus time, but the whole office! – tehnyit Apr 19 '12 at 17:19
    
This doesn't work if you have to sit with sales people (IOW people who can't keep their mouth shut) – BЈовић Jun 28 '13 at 14:50
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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
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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
    
Thanks for the expansion. Your #5 makes particular sense -- it's something people can do without management approval, yet how often do we think to actually have those conversations? Good idea. – Monica Cellio Jun 25 '14 at 16:01

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
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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
    
It's long enough to work, but short enough to put off returning calls, requests, coworker interruptions... – ewwhite Apr 19 '12 at 14:55
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When you say custom in-ear headphones, do you mean customed to your ear canals? – tehnyit Apr 19 '12 at 21:11
    
Yes. Small and unobtrusive. – ewwhite Apr 19 '12 at 21:13
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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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One thing no one else seems to mention when discussing the issue of noise in an open office environment is:

Management chose to put you into a sub-optimal situation. They are therefore choosing less productivity. Therefore the first thing to do is to stop worrying about the fact that you could do more under better circumstances. When circumstances aren't going to change, sometimes it is best just to accept that there will always be noise and it is always going to be disruptive to some extent.

Management knows you won't be as productive and they choose to save money by putting in open offices. Management knows the sales team is loud and they chose to put them next to the accounting staff or developers who need to concentrate. So if management has decided the productivity trade-off is worth the cost savings, there is nothing you can do to convince them.

So stop worrying about it and, next time you get a new job, weed out the places with open offices from consideration. Once they can't hire new people, these stupid open office plan offices will start to go away. I expect the trend will take 5-10 years to reverse though because the alternatives are expensive so the hit to productivity will have to be really large. And many people won't realize the problem until they work in one and even then, well, working in an open office is better than being unemployed.

Once you stop fighting it, it becomes more possible to ignore the noise. It is your irritation with the noise that is affecting you more than the actual noise much of the time. Once you learn to accept what can't be changed, you are less irritated, and thus less distracted.

For instance, if I happen to notice the air conditioning, I am usually distracted for less than a second and then back to work (unless it sounded like it blew up!). That is because I don't attribute any malice to the air conditioner and it doesn't make me mad that it is running (I like it working actually).

You will notice in these types of questions that people are most upset about what they consider to be inappropriate noise like having a conversation that is not work related (or not related to their work) or someone who they think is deliberating trying to annoy them by, say, typing too loud. I've noticed that the less the person likes the person making the noise, the more distracting it seems to be. That is because it is your response to the noise not the noise itself that is the the real distraction.

Next you need to practice getting back into the groove after being distracted and letting yourself get distracted less and less. The only way to do this is to practice it and gradually, you will find yourself less and less distracted. SO the thing is every time you get distracted, you say mentally to yourself, "Oh a noise, back to work" and then turn back to your task. Soon you will get faster at noticing you are distracted and returning to work. The less time you are distracted for, the easier it is to get back into the groove of where you were.

Meditation techniques will help you develop concentration in the face of distractions. When you first start to meditate, you are distracted almost continuously. But as you practice noticing the distraction and deliberately returning to the meditation, you find that you are distracted less and less and that the time to return to task take less and less time. Consider your concentrated work as the meditation and just keep returning to task quietly, without emotional baggage.

You can also consider having a pen and paper next to you and noting down what you are doing at the time of the distraction if it looks to be a major one. A quick reminder will help you get back on track.

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How about emotions, they also affects the concentration? – Junior Apr 27 at 13:16
    
@Junior, you learn to compartmentalize emotions at work so they don't affect you as much. You choose much of your emotional reactions. You can choose to be angry or upset or to let it go. What you should not choose is to fail to do your job because of an emotional issue. If I could work effectively after my boyfriend died and after my mother died and after my 3-year old great niece got cancer, then you can learn to handle whatever emotions you have. Sure you feel an emotion at the time something happens, but it is best to feel it and then put it away rather than continually thinking on it. – HLGEM Apr 27 at 13:41

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