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How to stay productive in an open-plan office

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As recently as a decade ago, the words “corporate office” conjured up images of a cubicle labyrinth – a place where men and women in suits go to put in their 9-to-5 with the aim of one day moving up to the corner office with a bronze nameplate.

Now, most people, even those long retired from the workforce, are well aware that the cubicle farm has for the most part been completely dismantled in favor of the open-office floor plan. Offices have become more like variants of a café, where people come and go at all hours, converse in lounge-style seating areas, and sip house-made mocha lattes on their breaks.

Proponents of the open-plan office trumpet the promotion of teamwork and collaboration, but more and more companies are starting to realize that open environments can be fraught with distractions that impact employee well-being and productivity. A study by Steelcase found that 85 percent of people are dissatisfied with their working environment and can’t concentrate, while office workers are losing 86 minutes a day due to distractions. Last month, Fortune went as far as to pronounce that the open-office concept is dead.

Regardless of where the open-plan office will take us, and in spite of its already pronounced death, open workspaces are still a reality, as is the shrinking of personal space in the office. CoreNet Global estimates the average amount of office space per employee will shrink to less than 100 square feet by 2018, down from 225 square feet in 2010.

This can be a scary prospect, especially for introverts and people who like to put their head down and get stuff done. However, there are certain techniques you can use to stay focused and productive even when your coworkers are chattering a few feet away.

Here are the five best practices to staying productive in an open-plan office.

1. Take advantage of off-peak hours

Every office has its natural cadence of peak and off-peak hours. Some offices brim with social activity at 6:30 a.m. but are dead silent by 10 a.m., while others are just getting warmed up at 10 a.m. and hit their happy hour after lunchtime.

Figure out when your office’s noise levels are at their highest decibels, and try to work around it. Come in earlier if the chatty period starts later and come in later if it starts earlier. There’s probably no way to avoid overlapping at least a little, but via this simple schedule shift you can probably evade most of what’s driving you to distraction and find that focus to get your work done in peace.

2. Use noise-blocking headphones

This is an obvious solution, but it’s not always correctly executed. First off, there are many different types of noise-blocking headphones, with the most important factor being that they come in two distinct types: noise-cancelling and noise-isolating.

In a nutshell: noise-isolating headphones physically block ambient noise with their seal against your ear, while noise-cancelling headphones electronically cancel the actual sound waves. Noise-cancelling headphones work best with low-frequency noise, such as car engines and air conditioners, but they don’t work very well with voices, which are better blocked by noise-isolating headphones. So if you’re seeking to block out your coworkers’ chatter, use noise-isolating headphones.

3. Reserve conference rooms and private spaces

One great thing about open offices is that they are usually well-equipped with secluded spots and private call or meeting rooms. Make sure to get a lay of the land of your office space and learn where these spots are and when they are generally available.

Chat with your manager or the office admin staff to ensure that you can regularly book the time in a particular conference room. Also, plan out your activities the day or night before and strategize when to work from a private area when you need to be at prime focus (for example, while writing a plan, finalizing a report, or doing a round of customer follow-up calls) and use your knowledge of your office’s peak/off-peak hours (see tip #1) to book the room during the noisier times.

4. Track your productivity

If you are one of the people involved in the open-plan chatting and find yourself getting continually sucked into conversations that don’t necessarily pertain to work, a good way to keep yourself on task is to monitor your productivity. Use time-tracking applications to monitor the amount of time you actually spend working and to assess what you get done in that time.

You may find that the social breaks are helpful, or that they hinder your work efficiency and that you need to curtail or confine them to certain parts of the day. Regardless of the outcome, monitoring your own work efficiency is a great way to both make yourself more productive while learning about the factors that make you less efficient.

5. Embrace the noise

Ever notice how hard it is to get to sleep when you try really hard to get to sleep? The same concept applies to blocking out background noise. The harder you try to block it out the more it will affect you. So… stop trying. Let it go and let noise “just be.” It sounds counterintuitive but it works. When you accept that there’s noise, it can stop bothering you and will slowly but surely begin to blend into the background ether. And don’t forget that while headphones can be good for zoning out, the rationale behind open-plan offices is to collaborate with others. A huge benefit of being able to hear other people is to know what else is happening at work, should it spur ideas or suggestions. You never know – embracing the noise could help you and your teammates find a solution to an important work issue.

While open-office workplaces have proven benefits, more and more companies are starting to understand that the key is adaptability: being able to provide the teamwork-stimulating open spaces while catering to the needs of people who prefer a quieter work area.

In the end, no matter what type of office you work in, staying productive will always come down to efficiency and effective time management: with good time tracking and honest self-evaluation, you can stay productive in even the noisiest environments.

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Archana Lokesh


Archana Lokesh

Archana is the Manager of the Sales Development team at Deltek | Replicon. Deltek | Replicon provides award-winning products that make it easy to manage your workforce. With complete solution sets for client billing, project costing, and time and attendance management, Deltek | Replicon enables the capture, administration, and optimization of your most underutilized and important asset: time.


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