How can I stay focused in a noisy open office landscape without distancing myself too much from colleagues and co-workers? What's best? Listening to music, booking meeting rooms (we have plenty!) or just try to brute force through it?

Even when I turn off my cell phone, kill Skype, open email through three half hour sessions a day the main source of distraction is the open office environment in which I work. I have 8 more or less noisy colleagues within one to two metres with nothing to cancel the sound of them talking to each other, talking on the phone, eating apples etc. Early in the morning and late in the evening when the office is empty I can manage to focus on something for longer periods of time but during "normal" office hours colleagues constantly talk to me and others. It is impossible to keep 100% focus for more than 1-2 minutes at a time. The peer feedback model in a work place where the culture is to make make sound doesn't seem to be working either.
I remember reading somewhere on the M-T-site that using ear buds and listening to music is not recommended as that means that your distancing yourself from your colleagues. Is this true in all circumstances? What do others that work in open office environments do in order to be able to concentrate? Would it be appropriate to use one of our small rooms that are used for short meetings and phone calls for a few hours a day? I of course don't want to be seen as arrogant or distancing myself from the rest of the organisation but at the same time it seems impossible to do some serious thinking in this environment.
Thank you!

jocadl's picture


that's a good one, very relevant to a lot of people where I work and have worked. For me, a combination of booking meeting rooms and time-boxing works best. Not perfect, but okay.

I'll block chunks of time on my calendar for particular tasks (say, putting a slide deck together for a presentation in two 45-minute blocks, today and tomorrow). Then, I'll retreat to a meeting room, turn my phone to voicemai, set a timer, and concentrate on finishing the task before my time is up.

Any other time during the day, I'm totally approachable, friendly, social, and open for project-/work-related conversations. But when I'm gone, I'm gone.

You're lucky if your facility has enough quiet space. At a previous employer, we had "touchdown rooms", one-person compartments with glass walls, a conference phone and a network connection, that I frequently used.

How does it work for others?


afmoffa's picture

Ditto here. I have two worksites.

Worksite 1 is no problem. Six employees share four small offices. Soundproofing could be better but it's fine. Sadly, I'm at Worksite 1 only twice each week.

Worksite 2 is very challenging for me. I am distracted and disrupted constantly. It is, like RastmusQ says, an open office. Unlike him, I don't have access to small meeting rooms for a respite. Huge room, three long tables. I am in view of my boss and coworkers at all times. The company culture is the boss calls out his concern and we all stop what we're doing and discuss it. I mean, we're all around the table, so it's hard to say no. Even my boss has very little sway over the activities of the other companies who share this space.

I do my best work when I can disappear for an hour or two, zone out, and come up with an idea. They hired me because I have a proven track record of creative ideas. I have no ideas at Worksite 2. I spend my day reacting to other people's "fire drills" as Mark so aptly terms them.

When I get a little more seniority, I'll ask to work from home one day per week. But for now, I'm in a constant state of divided attention.

adryad's picture

 I'm in a similar, possibly worse, position. Not only do I share my workspace with my staff, but its open to their staff and our clientele AND I have to carry a 2-way radio so I can be accessed anywhere in the facility at any time. This makes it impossible to do my job with any real degree of efficiency. Although it has been beneficial in developing my low 'I'. it is frustrating beyond words. 

That said, I'm curious to see the input/advice others have to offer. (Sorry not to offer any, Jochen.)

acao162's picture

My office gets loud at times.  More often than not these days.  Short of hollering at everyone to just be quiet (which would be unprofessional and rude), my coping strategies are as follows:

- Use meeting rooms when necessary to have a private phone conversation or one on one

- Actively tune out conversations - I learned this with screaming babies and whiny toddlers - I don't know how to explain it, but simply stop actively listening.

- Do not engage when you are working.  In other words, if a funny story is being told, don't respond, don't add to the conversation.  Just continue to work.  Sometimes this helps others to get back to work more quickly too.

- Come in early a few mornings and get your critcal thinking done.  Monitor your day, is one time louder than another?  If so, schedule your filing or other less important task for this time.

- Let others know what you are working on and the relevant deadlines such as "Mary, I'm working on the year end report for Boss Susan.  It has to be done by the end of the day.  For sure, if you need something, do let me know.  Otherwise, I'm planning to focus on this today."  This keeps you available but not as "accessible"

Maybe some of this could work for you.  I find I am my own worst enemy, I get sucked into the noise and not into my work. 



GlennR's picture

My favorite management quote by someone other than Mark: "90% of all management problems are caused by miscommunication." I interpret that statement to include failure to communicate.

If you are having this issue, isn't it possible that your co-workers are having this issue? Have you talked with them about possible solutions? For example, I remember reading about 37Signals where they implemented a quiet time at a certain point of the day. (They don't communicate with their customers via phone so I'm not sure how you'd handle that.)

When you bring this up, be sure that you are not perceived as complaining or whining, only that you're trying to figure a way for everyone to be more productive.

acao162's picture

Or, you could do exactly as Glen suggested, and just talk to people....sigh. 

Thanks for reminding me about that as well!