How to Stay Focused in an Open-Plan Office

The move towards open-plan offices was said to make us more collaborative and productive.

But as Sue Shellenbarger wrote in The Wall Street Journal, it has had the opposite effect. “All of this social engineering has created endless distractions that draw employees’ eyes away from their own screens”, she said.

Visual Noise

Visual noise — the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, competes for cognitive resources, erodes concentration and disrupts analytical thinking or creativity.

Sabine Kastner, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at Princeton University, has for over 20 years, studied how the brain pays attention. She says that for some people, an open-plan office can make it almost impossible to concentrate.

And as Shellenbarger pointed out, professionals are being interrupted more than ever.

The following stats provide for some pause.

  • 71 percent of people are frequently interrupted at work.
  • 28 percent of employee time is spent tackling unnecessary interruptions, which is followed by recovery time (more than two hours of a typical employee’s workday).
  • The average employee is interrupted 50 to 60 times a day (approximately once every eight minutes).

Our IQ dips by 10 points when we’re interruptions such as taps on the shoulder — this is on par with pulling an all-nighter, and 4 points more than smoking marijuana.

Audible Noise

Not only that, but audible noise also plays a role.

A 2003 study on personality attributes and noise sensitivity found that extroverts — who demonstrate less arousability or sensitivity to external stressors than introverts — are more likely to better adapt to noise during mental performance.

When study participants were given the option to adjust the volume on their noise-emitting headsets, extroverts selected a noise level of 72 decibels and introverts 55 decibels. At these respective volumes, both groups were equally aroused and played equally well.

It turns out that the typical open plan office decibel level is 60–65 decibels, which might be too noisy for introverts — who are said to make up about 30 to 50 percent of the population, and perhaps a little quiet for extroverts.

Should you work in an open-plan office?

Well, it really depends on two key factors.

  1. Whether you lean introvert or extrovert — complete this test to see where you fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum.
  2. The nature of the work you’re engaged in — if it requires deep and uninterrupted focus, open-plan with all of its requisite distractions is not going to help your cause.

But what if you have no say where you work?

What if you’re being ushered back into the office at the behest of managers who don’t trust that you can get stuff done from home or elsewhere, despite having done so for over 12 months now?

Well, short of resigning, there are things you can do to counter both visual and audible noise.

How to Offset Visual Noise

  1. Use an oversized computer monitor — Boston Consulting Group installed 34-inch curved monitors for its staff, which help to block out many visual distractions.

2. Use strategically placed plants.

If you have influence over your company’s budget, you might want to consider the following.

3. Install privacy screens.

4. Consider investing in Steelcase Brody workstations, or similar.

Beat Audible Noise

Of course, there are things you can do if you find the environment too noisy — like put on a pair of BOSE noise-canceling headphones or good old-fashioned earplugs.

Final Thoughts

The most progressive offices are creating spaces where people can seek refuge from the noise and interruptions and are also empowering their people to work remotely by choice.