How to Stay Productive in an Open Office

Open offices are fun, but it takes effort to make them productive.

Open offices have come under fire lately. While initially conceived as a means to make workers more happy and sociable, open layouts often result in discomfort and a loss of productivity. Luckily, just because your office lacks cubicle walls doesn’t mean you have to give up privacy entirely. With these tricks, you can keep your personal workflow going even in an open environment.

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1) Wear headphones

Most people have tried using music to drown out distractions at some point, but there’s more to this tip than meets the eye. In fact, while music keeps you from unwillingly eavesdropping on your neighbor’s conversation, it doesn’t do much for your focus. Music with lyrics is often just as distracting as background conversation. If you want to drown out sound with more sound, stick with something non-vocal, like white noise or ambient electronic music.

Perhaps more importantly, headphones are a sign that you don’t want to be disturbed. Background noise is only half the problem open offices—coworkers will make you deal with foreground noise if you let them. Even without music, wearing headphones will keep people from bothering you, so at worst you’ll only have to deal with background noise.

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2) Delegate a specific space for collaboration

Hopefully your entire office isn’t a collaborative space. If it isn’t, take care to only sit in an open area when you have group work to do, and spend the rest of your time in peace and quiet.

But many offices don’t have this luxury. If you work in an open area with a single team, try to work together and decide on a place to do your group work. Even in an open office, you can dedicate any given table or cluster of chairs to brainstorming. The rest of the office should be reserved for personal work, even if you don’t have the privacy of cubicle walls.

If you let brainstorming sessions seep out into the rest of the office, it gets harder to draw the line between group work and personal work, and that means more interruptions for everyone.

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3) Don’t help everyone who asks for it

Helping others is great; being helped is even better. But don’t get carried away. While it’s worth asking for assistance if you need a supervisor’s input or if you’re genuinely stuck, you should generally treat asking for help as a last resort.

Taking a break from your work to help out a coworker will decrease your productivity. It’s a mental readjustment, what you might call “shifting gears”.

Every time you shift gears, you lose a few extra minutes before getting back in the groove. Even if it only takes 5 minutes to help a coworker with a problem, it might take 2 minutes to understand their problem and another 2 minutes to get back into what you were doing. In the end, you’ve pretty much lost twice the time you thought you would have. What if this happened multiple times a day?

When you’re deep in thought, don’t undersell the importance of your own work. It’s okay to say that you’re busy and to keep chugging away. On the flip side, if you’re thinking of asking a coworker for help, make sure you’ve exhausted the obvious options first. When in doubt, do it yourself.

Maintaining a harmonious open office is like maintaining a harmonious college dorm. Living and working in close quarters with others is hard, and you quickly learn that you need more personal space than you thought you did. Fortunately, staying productive doesn’t have to mean being cold and unfriendly. If you draw the right boundaries, you’ll get so much work done that you’ll actually welcome the occasional interruption.