4 ways to make open offices less distracting

Today’s free-flow workplaces can enhance collaboration, but they can also create a lot of noise. Here’s how to ensure your employees can still concentrate in open floor plans.

Many workplaces today feature open spaces and smaller, often shared, workstations. These open floor plans have become the new normal in many organizations.

Some people like them, citing the ability to collaborate with co-workers and the creativity they inspire. However, I hear just as many complaints about how the walk-in visitors, interruptions and noise level diminish productivity, privacy and workplace satisfaction.

According to research from UC Irvine, office workers are interrupted once every 11 minutes, and it can take up to 23 minutes to refocus on what you were doing.

A lot of wasted time every day

The brain isn’t a marvel of infinite capacity. We are only human, with all the limitations that implies. One limitation lies in our capacity to process what’s happening around us, from room temperature to the quality of the lighting.

When you’re trying to focus on a task and you overhear a hallway conversation—even if you don’t mean to—you lose track of what you were doing.

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In a recent study presented to the International Commission on Biological Effects of Noise, researchers found employees waste an average of 21.5 minutes per day due to conversational distractions, which is about 4 percent of an eight-hour day.

If you have 100 employees at an average of $50,000 each, it’s costing you $200,000 a year in lost productivity. That 21.5 minutes figure is a conservative estimate. An additional 2014 Steelcase/Ipsos study found employees lose as much as 86 minutes per day to noise distractions.

Most people just accept it and learn to adapt—somewhat. They do fairly well “distracting the distractions” by listening to music or wearing noise-reducing headphones, but just because employees have adapted, that doesn’t mean they regularly achieve peak performance.

Even though open offices can seem noisy, a quiet, library-like environment won’t create a productive workspace, either.

The low level of background noise in a quiet environment allows noise distractions to contrast more dramatically with the quiet, causing a greater distraction than if the space were louder.

For example, imagine you’re in a library. If someone whispers, you tune right in. If your workplace is too quiet, you’re more distracted by conversations because you can hear the proverbial pin drop.

A few alternatives

Lacking volume controls for your co-workers (but wouldn’t that be great?), you have little choice but to try to reduce noise and create freedom from conversational distractions. Chat with your team about some ways to accomplish this in your office. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Use a signal.

If several people in your department have problems with drop-in visitors, agree on a signal that communicates, “Please don’t interrupt me unless it’s an emergency.”

A manager I worked with at Coca-Cola had an open-door policy. He wanted his employees to feel comfortable talking to him about anything, anytime. Unfortunately, he rarely had time to get his work done.

At his next staff meeting, he explained the problem. He offered a signal in response: When he had a deadline he would put on his red Coca-Cola baseball cap. His door would remain open in case there was an emergency, but he would prefer that employees didn’t interrupt him when he wore the hat.

It worked like a charm.

Get your department to agree on a signal that everyone will use consistently. Install curtains across cubicle doors, turn nameplates around, wear orange armbands or partially close the doors.

One group I worked with found that co-workers respected the signal about 80 percent of the time. When I questioned the people who said others weren’t respecting their signals, it turned out they never took down their signals. They were never available to their co-workers, so their co-workers ignored the signals.

If you use this system, don’t abuse it.

2. Increase background noise to mask the sound.

Increasing background noise (sound masking) seems counterintuitive.

Think of it this way: When I’m standing at the kitchen sink with the water running and my son starts talking to me from across the house, I can tell he’s talking, but I can’t make out what he’s saying. It’s not that he’s speaking more quietly; it’s that the water is masking his voice.

Adding sound makes speech less intelligible. When you can’t understand what people are saying, they are less distracting. You probably don’t even notice them.

Sound-masking systems, such as the QtPro system by Cambridge Sound Management, mimics this phenomenon on a much more sophisticated and effective scale. By adding a continuous, low-level ambient sound (similar to airflow), it masks excess speech noise, which makes the speech less distracting.

Systems such as QtPro allow you to converse comfortably with someone at the next cube without worrying that someone 40 feet away will hear you (and vice versa).

3. Consider your office’s layout.

Does your desk face a door or hallway? Humans are curious. When someone walks by, it’s natural to look up to see who passed.

If that person catches your eye, you might involuntarily smile. Not wanting to be rude, the person smiles back and awkwardly says, “Hi, how are you?” He enters your office, because it would seem rude to not get a real answer.

Congratulations, you just bought yourself a 10-minute interruption.

One solution is to rotate your desk or change your cubicle’s layout so your back faces the door. If someone walks by and sees you’re busy, he’s less likely to interrupt you. Plus, you’ll focus longer on your work.

If you can’t rotate your desk, try using a computer screen or cabinet to block your view.

4. Seek solitude.

Smart office designers and managers provide opportunities for people to find solitude if they need to work undisturbed. Similarly, workplace architects have begun to recognize the need to provide spaces for both people seeking to be around others and those seeking to get away from them.

A practical solution involves providing small-group workrooms where those seeking concentration and/or teams of three or fewer can retreat. If no such facilities exist, use an open conference room.

The bottom line

Managers should contemplate how to enable better focus in the workplace, such as installing a sound-masking system. As a last resort, take desperate measures—put on your noise-cancelling headphones and listen to music.

Laura Stack is one of America’s premier experts on productivity, and her company, The Productivity Pro, provides workshops on productivity, potential and performance. A version of this article originally appeared on The Productivity Pro blog. Contact her at laura@theproductivitypro.com, or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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