There’s not much to love about open plan offices. Studies have found that offices with no walls (or even low-walled cubicles) can reduce productivity by 15% due to increased noise, a lack of sound privacy, and increased interruptions.
But what about all the supposed benefits? The increased collaboration, heightened creativity, and serendipitous connections of being close to one another?
Unfortunately, those are mostly a myth. In fact, a recent study by Harvard professor Ethan Bernstein found that face-to-face interaction decreased by 70% in open plan offices (with an associated increase in digital communication by 20-50%).
Yet despite all this, researchers estimate that around 70% of US offices now have an open concept.
So if we can’t escape the open plan office, how can we at least make them more bearable? Here are a few tips from top researchers, workplace designers, and team leads.
Optimize your physical environment to promote better work habits
Let’s start with the space you’re actually in. An open office can be a hotbed of clutter, disorganization, and frustration. But more than just being an annoyance, an unorganized environment can skew the way you think and feel.
As non-profit behavioral science consultants ideas42 write:
“Context matters, often far more than we think. We’re not always aware of the extent to which we are swayed by the way information is presented to us. But these seemingly minor contextual features often influence what we think and do in subtle but powerful ways.”
It might not seem like it, but the things you surround yourself with can have a major impact on your ability to do good work. According to neuroscientists at Princeton University, physical clutter competes for your attention, causing decreased performance and increased stress.
Obviously, a clean workspace is an answer. But to get an added benefit, replace that clutter with personal items instead. As Alan Henry writes in The New York Times:
“A few personal effects, like a photo, a desk toy that expresses your personality or a sweater you can wear if it gets too cold (and we all know how chilly it gets in open offices) will make your desk — flexible seating or not — feel like a place you can settle in and get work done.”
Lastly, try bringing a small plant into your space. Multiple studies have found that being in nature and having greenery in the workspace reduce stress and boost productivity.
Use noise-canceling headphones and find other ways to reduce office noise
When it comes to open plan offices, headphones are the new walls. Instead of breaking down barriers and encouraging collaboration, open plan offices have forced most people to resort to extremes. In fact, 48.5% of workers said they use “headphone prison” to block out distractions from their workplace.
But while any unwanted noise has been repeatedly tied to reduced cognitive performance, there is plenty of research that shows the most destructive sound is other people’s conversations.
According to Julian Treasure, chairman of a United Kingdom-based consultancy, The Sound Agency:
“We have the bandwidth for roughly 1.6 human conversations. So if you’re hearing somebody’s conversation, then that’s taking up 1 of your 1.6. Even if you don’t want to listen to it, you can’t stop it: You have no earlids. And that means you’ve just .6 left to listen to your own inner voice.”
For your own sanity, finding sound privacy in an open plan office is a must. Try to find acoustically sealed spaces for phone conversations and suggest others do the same.
If that isn’t possible, consider upgrading your headphone prison with noise-canceling headphones. Research has found that trying to block out a conversation is just as distracting as hearing one. The more you can find silence in your space, the happier and more productive you’ll be.
Finally, be aware of your own contribution to workplace noise. It’s ironic that we’re able to ignore how distracting our own conversations are while complaining about others.
Quick tip: Pick the right tunes for the right task.
Certain music is better than others for productivity and focus. If you’re trying to do research or learn something new, pick classical, instrumental, or no music at all. While problem-solving tasks like web development and writing are best suited to music at 50-80 BPM and with minimal lyrics.
Try an “interruption stoplight” to halt drive-by distractions
One of the worst parts of having no walls is having no way to physically stop people from interrupting you. Add in the “always on” aspect of digital communication and it’s a wonder any of us have time to focus.
(In fact, when we studied the email habits of 50,000+ RescueTime users, we found that most people can’t go 6 minutes without checking their email or IM!)
To do good work, we need to be able to focus and enter a state of flow. But open plan offices make it incredibly hard to show when you don’t want to be interrupted. Sure, headphones or a closed office door can work, but not everyone understands (or respects) those signals.
Instead, you might consider using some sort of “interruption stoplight”—a tool or symbol that alerts co-workers that you’re in focus mode.
In one example, PR manager Jackson Carpenter told the BBC, his company gave everyone a block with one side painted red and the other green. When the green side is up, it means you’re “available” to chat. Otherwise, it’s a symbol that you’re in “focused” mode.
While a company called Flowlight has even created an “interruption traffic light” based on how you’re using your computer. In their research, they found it “significantly reduced the number of interruptions” while boosting users’ motivation and productivity.
Adjust your schedule to optimize when you’re in an open plan office
Open offices are popular for collaboration, “but quiet and privacy [are] still needed”, wrote Caleb Anthony Parker, who has worked in both open and personal offices.
While being in an office or working remotely are often portrayed as all-or-nothing options, they don’t have to be. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that combining the two will lead to the best result.
As Parker wrote in the BBC, a good schedule is to spend some days in an open plan office setting for team collaboration and meetings, then work from home for quiet and productivity. It’s a win-win, he says, saving companies and workers money, “not to mention [making] happier employees who are more productive and probably won’t miss a stressful commute.”
But what sort of schedule works best? Shari Buck, founder of Doximity—a social network for US clinicians—suggest a one-day-a-week solution like their “work from home Wednesdays.” As she explains in Forbes:
“On one hand, after two days in the office, often overwhelmed with meetings, the to-do list has likely grown rather than shrunk. Wednesdays are collectively our Get Sh*t Done (GSD) day. It’s the day we tackle tough problems with fewer distractions.”
Another option is to match your “maker” time with working from home while going into work on your “manager” days. (We wrote about the difference between maker and manager time here).
For Buffer technical lead Harrison Harnisch, this meant saving Monday and Wednesday for “office” days while leaving the middle of the week for deep focus. (Buffer is a fully remote company so he wasn’t exactly going into an office on those days, but the idea is the same).
Lastly, come up with a few rules about how you’ll work
An office isn’t just a building. It’s a collection of people working together, living their lives, and trying to collaborate as best as possible.
And while it might sound a bit Big Brother-y, having a few simple, agreed-upon rules is a fantastic way to squash open plan office frustration.
Be clear about what spaces are used for what and how you’re expected to act in them. For example, One Workplace design consultant John Ferrigan suggests creating “coding caves” for focused work:
“If you’re going to go in there and work, you can’t take a call on your phone, you can’t talk to anyone, or have music playing. You go in there, it’s focus and head-down to get work done.”
To get along, we all need to be clear about our needs in the workplace. Because in the end, we all want to do good work. And no one wants to be known as the office jerk loudly chatting away while everyone else is trying to focus.