An open office set up is quite popular, especially in the software development world. I believe a large reason is because it’s very economical from an office space perspective. In the same way you can gain more space in a house with an open floor plan, you gain more usable space in an office if you don’t have a bunch of walled offices everywhere. However the true intention behind an open work space was to break down barriers and foster teamwork and collaboration. Unfortunately, the science is bearing out that an open work space can lead to more tension and reduced productivity. But never let scientists dictate your reality! There are things you can do to take advantage of the benefits of an open space, while minimizing the negatives.
Avoiding distractions to yourself
Everybody is in control of their own world, and so this is the first place you should look to improve. There are two key pieces that will often work to keep yourself focused and those are 1) using headphones; and 2) not allowing yourself to get pulled into unnecessary discussions.
Using headphones can be extremely helpful, even if you aren’t listening to any music. First, it signals to other employees that you are working and would rather not be disturbed. Second, it prevents you from being distracted by conversations around you. Even if you put on a pair of headphones and play some white noise, I think you’ll find your productivity will trend upwards.
If you aren’t keen on wearing some ear gear all day long, you can still work at keeping yourself in the zone by actively avoiding discussions not relevant to your work. This can be a bit tricky but over time, you’ll find it’s like being absorbed in a good book – you know the world outside you exists, but your brain is able to shut it out and focus on the task at hand.
Minimize distractions to others
In tandem with avoiding distractions to yourself, you should also aim to minimize distractions to others. One of the best ways to do this is to pay attention to your surroundings. If everybody is quiet and working, it’s probably best not to start a loud conversation that could snap everybody out of their zone. Likewise, if you need to talk to someone and they have headphones on, you may want to start by sending an email/IM asking them to talk with you when they’re available. It’s amazing how many things aren’t as urgent as they seem to be in the moment. Almost anything can wait 15-30 minutes, and I bet you can find something else productive to do in the meantime.
Set up collaboration stations
Our office currently has a very open work space and a collaborative team who enjoy solving problems together. One thing we are doing next week to keep the collaboration going while reducing distractions is to set up separate collaboration stations. These desks are set up in areas away from the whole team, so that a few employees can break away, set up at these stations and discuss a problem without inadvertently affecting the entire office. These stations are set up fairly barebones with a monitor and couple chairs, to encourage the “use it, then lose it” ownership nature of those stations.
Set the culture
You need to make it clear to your team that this is their workspace, and they need to use it as productively as possible. They can expect to get distracted at times, but they can work with each other to minimize those as best as they can. Just the act of knowing that something will happen can reduce the stress and frustration when it does happen. Try and make quiet the norm, and encourage the team to be open and honest with each other if they feel things are too loud and unproductive.
Not every company can afford enough space to house all employees in their own offices. It’s a goal of ours down the line, but for now we’re working within our surroundings to keep churning out quality software as efficiently and effectively as possible.