How Office Workers can make Open Floor Plans more Productive

Part 2 of 3

Do you love open floor plans? Hate them? Either way, there are things you can do to maximize your productivity and the productivity of the people around you.

Introverts often quickly understand the need for guides to surviving an open floor plan, like this one.

What if you love open floor plan and feel just as (or more) productive than you would in a quiet office to yourself? What if you’re an extrovert and get more energy from having other people around? Is there anything useful for you here?

Yes, and here’s why:

  1. Camaraderie feels like productivity.
  2. While extroverts perform better with louder background noise than introverts (study by Russell Geen, mentioned in Quiet by Susan Cain), we all have limits on how much distraction we can handle before it becomes difficult to focus.
  3. Supporting your coworkers. I’ve learned that my experience in the moment can be very different from other people in the same environment, depending on their core personality and what they’re trying to achieve.

So, what can you do? Here’s some ideas:


  • Noise cancelling headphones, the more obvious the better. This can help be a cue that you need to focus. While this alone wasn’t enough in my second open floor experience, it did help.
  • Natural and unpredictable sounds are better for concentration. Music you like is good for routine tasks where you don’t need to think, and classical music may help complex thought. Nature sounds like rain, wind, ocean, or birds, or random sounds that aren’t music like color noise and binaural beats  can be soothing without being distracting. I often use these for additional concentration even when I have a quiet office to myself. Some of my favorite focus noises are combinations of brown noise, binaural beats, and rain sounds. There’s lots of YouTube videos with hours of different combinations of sounds.
  • Find the office rhythm and know your triggers. Plan around the times of day/week when the office is less distracting.

Privacy/visual distractions

  • Work from home when you can, if you have a quite space with no distractions.
  • Other private spaces that you can escape to – café, library, nook, focus rooms, phone rooms and conference rooms, possibly in a different area or building from your normal workspace where you’re unlikely to run into people you know. Find something where you can use it for several hours. I try for at least two hours.
  • Computer screen filter for your computer screens.
  • The feng shui command position concept provides privacy and reduces startling distractions by giving you warning when people walk over
    • See if you can get movable furniture (not fixed in a system) and set it up so you face where most of the traffic is, or face where people walk up to you. If you need a standing or sit-/stand desk for ergonomic reasons, that’s more likely to be somewhat movable.
    • Mirror on the desk so you can see people coming.
    • Ask for a corner or a wall space.
  • Tall plants or screens. Real or fake plants can go on the desk and/or flor. You can also create your own cube with Room dividers. Amazon sells folding screens in various prices, and a few stands for both screens and curtains, like this. For some sound baffling, go for things that are soft and thick, or have lots of edges facing different directions, like Sempervivum plants, corduroy or velvet.
  • Free standing shelves.
  • High back chair. Do booths in a restaurant feel sheltered? Same idea.
  • Coat rack with a big coat on it.
  • From my own experience – search for ‘public’ nooks that are quiet. Cafeterias are often good for this outside normal meal hours.
  • If there isn’t a quiet place, a noisy place that’s impersonal can still help provide privacy like a cafeteria where you don’t know anyone, or coffee shop.
  • Find private spaces for collaboration and deeper conversation. Private space improves collaboration because conversations where uninvolved people are listening tend to stay superficial.

Getting Sick


  • Office rules – have a meeting with the people around you and learn together what everyone finds distracting, and how people want to handle focus vs. social time. Explain what works for you, ask the quiet people to contribute. People won’t always stick to the rules, but if they’re discussed and created together it will raise awareness.
  • Ask people to check your status, then IM you before coming over, even if they sit close.
  • Create a signal to let others know you’re concentrating. Tell everyone what it is. Signs can work. Headphones alone usually don’t quite tip people off because everyone wears them all the time. An eye-catching toy that changes location to a prominent spot can be a cue. A few companies make desk lights that show your IM status live like and
  • Spend some time being social. You (and others) may find it easier to have “do not disturb time” when there’s a little social time too.
  • Set specific consistent times of day/week when you’re available and not. Consistency takes a lot of the thought and guesswork out of the day.

Stress reduction

  • Introverts take breaks by yourself. Since the office is full of social stimulation, find time to be alone during the day.
  • Extroverts spend time being social (see above, also helps make ‘room’ for focus time).
  • Go for a walk – Fresh air and movement helps. If getting outside isn’t reasonable, even walking around the building helps.
  • Looking at plants can reduce stress. (Linking to Psychology Today as the original Miller-McCune article: Nature is Good link is broken).
  • Any stress reduction technique that works for you, like meditation, breathing exercises or power stances. One of my favorite quick exercises is to take three deep, conscious breaths, and smile (from the Steam Dreamers of Inverness radio plays).
  • A few companies have prayer/meditation rooms for some quiet time. This can be a good option on days when the weather’s bad.


Most of my focus tips come from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. I found this a great resource of ideas and techniques for improving focus and compressed productivity. These are just a few:

  • Several smart routines and rituals suiting different styles and ways of life that reduce the willpower and effort needed to maintain deep focused work. Through lines include:
    • Ritualize – plan where, how, and how long in advance.
    • Accountability – measure your performance to your plan. Keep it simple.
    • Comfort – include the things you need to be ready to focus into your ritual – coffee, exercise, or nutrition – whatever removes distractions and helps you think.
    • Avoid distractions
      •  “Embrace Boredom….To succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.” Practice accepting moments of boredom. Turn your schedule around. “Don’t take breaks from distraction. Instead, take breaks from focus.”
      • Quit social media. Time without internet and phones as entertainment supports the point above and gives more time for alternatives that provide a deeper level of rest and rejuvenation.
      • “Drain the Shallows…. Treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated.” A friend talks about shallow work as the “work you do to not get fired” where deep work is “the work you do that advances your career”. It’s important not to get fired, but if we overbalance to shallow work we never have time to excel or distinguish ourselves with results that really make a difference.
      • “Become hard to reach”
  • Downtime
    • Preserve downtime and sleep at the end of the day. After a long day of distractions it can feel like we didn’t get enough done and tempting to put in a few more hours to catch up. However, Newport points out, “the work that evening downtime replaces is usually not that important.” When I get tired at the end of the day my judgment on priority starts to slip and I spend time on tasks I would never consider urgent when rested. This turns into a cycle of spending more hours, less recovery time and less time on the work that really matters.
    • Quality downtime recharges the energy we need for deep work. We only have 1-4 hours capacity for deep work per day according to a 1993 Anders Ericsson paper Newport cites on practicing for expert level performance. Build that time in the workday and use evenings to fully unplug, rest and recharge.
    • Downtime around nature increases focus as well as reduces stress (above). Newport cites a 2008 paper in Psychological Science that gave two groups a concentration-sapping task. The group that took a walk through a wooded path performed 20% better than the group that took a walk through busy city streets.
  • Practice productive meditation. “The goal of productive meditation is to take a period in which you’re occupied physically but not mentally—walking, jogging, driving, showering—and focus your attention on a single well-defined professional problem.” Using walking time this way provides a powerful 3-in-1 life hack. Stack productive focus time, stress reduction (mentioned above) plus improved health in the same time.
  • Interruptions are sometimes inevitable. My last tip comes from both Deep Work and from a University of Washington article. The article recommends writing ready-to-resume plan before devoting attention to a new task. This produces better results on the interrupting task. Deep Work mentions doing a similar “shutdown ritual” at the end of the day. Rather than creating a ready-to-resume plan for every unfinished task, Newport suggests capturing them in a common list and reviewing them before planning the next day. This ensures you don’t have to put any more energy into thinking about it, and nothing will be forgotten.

Other articles and ideas:

Next: How employers can make open floor plans more productive

When is an Open Floor Plan Good for Business?

Part 1 of 3

“Top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking referencing the Coding War Games study.

Many of us find open floor plans and shared workspace unpleasant. The noise, visual distractions, or that particularly pungent lunch can be oppressive. Others love it. The chit chat, bonding, and the ability to get a quick answer to your question just by turning around and saying, “Hey Phil…” can be wonderful. My company is one of the few left with private offices, and we’re quickly moving to open floor. This made me wonder if the quote above is right. Regardless of how we feel about working in an open floor plan, is it good business?

My story

Mostly I was fine in my first open floor plan. Admittedly, there was that poor guy with terrible allergies during cottonwood season — he made me want to tear my ears off. Otherwise I enjoyed it. The job was mind-numbingly routine so the easy chit-chat around the room was a welcome break. Sometimes I wished I could get a quiet space to really crank some work out, but I had limited patience when the managers told us to keep the noise down. People were complaining they couldn’t focus. I’m a deep introvert and I could get my work done just fine. How boring it would be if we all worked in hushed whispers like a library!

Later in my career I minded open floor plans very much. I got my PMP certification, worked in an array of temporary spaces as a consultant, then came back to a large open floor-plan as a Scrum Master. My role demanded I be in the office. Due to underbidding on fixed bid contracts, our projects were on the rocks and over budget, often by a lot. As a very small shop we couldn’t afford that. People there were friendly with good hearts, but often said some hurtful things under stress without realizing it. I had big problems I was trying to manage. I was no longer doing simple repetitive work. If I was going to help our projects succeed I needed to think and I needed to be persuasive. Mostly I sat in a space that was essentially the hallway to the kitchen, with my back to traffic. Near the end I remember beautiful spring mornings driving the hour to work listening to calm feel-good radio plays. I’d park, turn the play off, and spend the next ten minutes telling myself to go inside.

Why did I have such wildly different reactions to essentially the same space? This year the tidal wave of transition to open floor plan got very close to me. I panicked. I’ve had the privilege of an office of my own for a few years. I couldn’t imagine trying to focus without the privacy and freedom from distraction. I researched everything I could find online about whether open floor plan really works, why companies embrace it, and what to do about it.

This is the first of three posts to answer these questions.

When is open floor plan good for business? Does it really work?

For the most part open floor plans perform poorly due to lack of privacy, noise and visual distractions, absenteeism due to increased illness and for some, stress from overstimulation. There’s many articles and studies on this. Links to a few of my favorites below.

So why do companies embrace open floor plan?

Help on demand

What about improved collaboration like the ‘hey Phil’ effect I mention above? There’s a study for that too.

Participants who requested help with a task performed better, while those who supplied assistance did worse. Frequently alternating between helping others and doing one’s own job imposes a heavy “cognitive load,” the scientists concluded, as the help givers are forced to repeatedly reacquaint themselves with the details of their own task.

Collaboration and innovation

OK, but many people think open floor plans create a more collaborative and innovative environment, and informal chance encounters improve performance. I’ve certainly had moments where a casual conversation has sparked an idea, but this article implies that there’s no upper limit to this effect. The more chance encounters, the better everyone performs.

Content: More conversations about Phil’s dog

If that’s true, what about my second open floor plan experience? I had lots of chance encounters. Shouldn’t that have made all the projects more successful? A sentence later in the same article gave me a clue. “We don’t measure the content of interactions, but that doesn’t matter. When collisions occur, regardless of their content, improvement typically follows.”

That didn’t seem right. Doesn’t content matter? If I’m having a conversation about Phil’s dog is that just as productive as a deep-dive into capabilities of the tool he runs? Another Harvard Business Review article Who Moved My Cube? reinforced that “employees in open-plan spaces, knowing that they may be overheard or interrupted, have shorter and more-superficial discussions than they otherwise would.” So, more conversations about Phil’s dog.

Millennials love it

The Open Office Trap helped me understand why so many people think open floor plans inspire collaboration and innovation. The article mentions a review of over one hundred studies found that open floor plan can create a “sense of organizational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise.” From another 2012 study on younger workers: “open space resulted in a sense of camaraderie; they valued the time spent socializing with coworkers, whom they often saw as friends.” and “young employees found certain types of noises, such as conversations and laughter, just as distracting as their older counterparts did.” Millennials find open floor plan just as distracting as older workers, they just enjoy it more.

That reminds me of my first open-office experience. I certainly felt more connection to my co-workers. For some of us, camaraderie feels like productivity. We can look back on a satisfying day of happy connection and bonding and feel like there was a lot of productive collaboration when, in fact, the distractions and lack of privacy damage “attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.”

This also gave me another clue about why I liked my first open floor plan job, and hated my most recent. My first job required very little real focus or attention. I was doing what Cal Newport in his book Deep Work: the Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World calls “Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style task, often performed while distracted.” That first job didn’t require much thought or attention, so distractions weren’t really a problem for my productivity.

Data driven decisions and the metrics black hole

Newport coins the phrase “metrics black hole” to describe how the more complex knowledge work is, the harder it becomes to measure the value of a single person’s work. As companies push to make data-driven business decisions they need to weigh things that are easy to measure against things that are difficult. When considering open floor plan, measuring the financial value of productivity is difficult. Measuring the cost savings of reduced facilities and floorspace needs is easy and compelling. Geoffrey James in this LinkedIn post tries to create a metrics argument for productivity, but that could be very difficult to ‘sell’ in a boardroom or senior leadership meeting against data on big cost savings.

Wow. So does all this mean private offices are the perfect working environment and anyone working in an open floor plan is doomed to distraction and poor productivity? I don’t completely agree with Newport when he calls open office “depth-destroying”. I know from first-hand experience it can be, but a little bit of thought, planning, and modest investment can make all the difference.

The key seems to be about providing autonomy and balance between focus work and collaborative work. The best solution combines ideas from Who Moved My Cube? “The most effective spaces bring people together and remove barriers while also providing sufficient privacy that people don’t fear being overheard or interrupted. In addition, they reinforce permission to convene and speak freely.” with the recommendation that workers set aside a block of time each day when they are not to be disturbed. Newport proposes “soundproofed offices connected to large common areas” to support innovation through “both serendipitous encounter and isolated deep thinking”. I agree that this architecture will work, but quiet focus space doesn’t have to be a traditional personal office. Regardless of the core arrangement, information workers should have space and permission for:

  1. Quiet distraction-free focus for several hours
  2. Deep collaboration in privacy
  3. Informal casual chance encounters

Next: How workers can make open floor plans more productive.



The Open-Office Trap

How to Stay Productive In an Open Working Environment

Google got it wrong. The open-office trend is destroying the workplace.

Who Moved my Cube?


Workspace satisfaction: The privacy-communication trade-off in open-plan offices

The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control

Stress and open-office noise

The Privacy Crisis: Taking a Toll on Employee Engagement

Sickness absence associated with shared and open-plan offices–a national cross sectional questionnaire survey.

Privacy at Work: Architectural Correlates of Job Satisfaction and Job Performance