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Marek Struszczyk

Co-Founder ManagerUp

Last modified: June 7th, 2023

Would you be surprised to learn that 54% of high-performing employees describe an open-plan office as “too distracting”? But don’t panic, even though productivity in an open-plan office comes with some inherent challenges, we’ve got some tips to stay focused and be productive.

Distractions throughout the day can cost you and your employees up to 3-4 hours of productive time a day. And it can take an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to the original task following an interruption. 

The biggest loss of productive time during the day is reportedly interruptions from colleagues. On average, employees in open office environments receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices.

Evidently, a co working environment can make it extremely challenging to focus and be productive at work.

To help you maintain productivity in an open working environment, we’ve put together nine proven tips to stay focused. And the best bit is that these tips will help whether you work in an open office, a co working center, a coffee shop, or any other shared environment.

1. Get Input from Your Team 

Remember earlier when we mentioned it takes up to 25 minutes to refocus after an interruption? If you get interrupted 16 times in an eight-hour workday, you’re better off staying in bed. 

How can you combat this issue? Whether you manage a team of five or 50, start with a casual meeting with your employees. Have an honest discussion about how everyone can optimize their work in an open environment.

What’s working (and not working) in the current office design? Are there particular areas that are especially noisy or distracting? Are there certain situations or times of the day when everyone seems to have trouble focusing?

Once you have clear input from everyone, focus on creating a plan to minimize distractions.

For example, when someone is on the phone, can everyone in their vicinity lower their voice to a whisper? Would it benefit everyone to schedule one office-wide, interruption-free hour each morning or afternoon? Could you turn that unused corner into a quiet, library-like setting if someone needs a few minutes of silence?

The goal of this brainstorming session is to be proactive. You want to give everyone the chance to collaborate on optimizing the working environment.

2. Change Your Location

If you’re having trouble focusing at your usual workstation, take your laptop elsewhere. Chances are you can find a quiet nook or corner somewhere that isn’t being used.

Is there an empty conference room or a semi-private cubicle you could use for an hour or two? If your company spans multiple floors, could you move up or down a floor? You’re less likely to become distracted if you’re surrounded by people you don’t know as well.

What if you notice that your employees are constantly up and changing their work locations to seek solitude? That’s a sign that it’s time to revamp the office to make the space more productive for everyone. Take the initiative to add a few cozy couches to the break room or create a small “quiet zone” where your employees can go to focus.

If you (or your employees) still occasionally have trouble focusing, a visit to a nearby coffee shop or library could be the perfect way to hit the reset button.

The “coffee shop effect” has been found to boost concentration and help your brain perform better. The right amount of background noise not only improves your mood and sharpens your vision, but it can also enhance your decision-making abilities.

Some types of background noise have been proven to produce sensory signals that help your brain to break out of a rut and see things from a different perspective.

3. Switch to Batch Communication

Does it seem like you’re constantly interrupted by the same individuals? Is there one person who sends an email or Slack message every few minutes?

To cut down on interruptions, ask this person (or everyone on staff) to keep a running list of questions, requests, and needs. Then set aside a few times a day to check your email or the office chat group to address those concerns.

More helpful tips to stay focused include asking employees or colleagues to email you instead of calling, messaging, or physically interrupting you. The fewer interruptions everyone receives, the better everyone will be able to focus at work.

Of course, you can always make exceptions if there’s a true emergency or something that can’t wait until later in the day. 

4. Create Standing Workstations

A sure way to boost productivity and reduce aches and pains is making the switch to standing desks. In fact, standing while you work improves your circulation, helps you burn more calories, and boosts your digestion and energy levels.

Depending on the size of your company, you may not be able to invest in standing desks for everyone. If possible, though, could you add a few standing workstations around the office so employees can take advantage of them if they want to.

If you’re wondering whether standing really makes that much of a difference, the answer is yes. Studies show that workers who stand can be 45% more productive than their seated colleagues!

And let’s not overlook an even more important fact: Sitting for more than six hours a day raises your risk of early death by almost 20%.

5. Revamp Your Personal Workspace

Another one of our helpful tips to stay focused is to make the most of your own personal space. And even if space is limited, little changes can make a huge difference in your ability to concentrate.

For example, you could add a bit of life (literally) by placing a potted plant, succulent, or goldfish bowl on your desk. Other productivity boosters include an essential oil diffuser, aromatherapy mister, a small fountain, or a white noise maker. 

Of course, before you add anything with sounds or smells, check with your nearby colleagues to ensure the addition won’t become a distraction for them.

6. Start a “Study Hall” for Grown-Ups

Remember in high school when everyone filed down to the library for an hour of quiet time to study or finish homework? That same concept can do wonders for increasing focus and productivity amongst your staff. 

Designate an hour or two each workday to work quietly and not interrupt each other. Set the group chat to “do not disturb” mode and switch off email notifications so no one is tempted to break the silence.

Depending on the needs of your business, this might work best first thing in the morning or at the end of the day before everyone goes home. Another time that works well is right after the lunch break when everyone has had the chance to collaborate.

7. Get Some Fresh Air

There are some days when all these tips to stay focused simply won’t be enough. Whether you’re dealing with a difficult client or the interruptions won’t stop coming, sometimes the best thing you can do is step outside.

Take a few moments to sit in the sunshine or go for a quick walk around the block. Take a moment to meditate or say a prayer to help you regain your focus. If there’s a park nearby, spend a few minutes reconnecting with nature.

You’re sure to feel more balanced and ready to tackle those assignments when you return to the office.

8. Wear Headphones

To drown out the background noise, the most obvious place to start is by wearing headphones.

There’s a variety of noise-canceling headphones on the market today that create a tranquil bubble so you can focus at work. You can also use headphones to listen to streamlined music that boosts cognition, mood, and productivity.

One study found that workers who listened to streamlined music significantly outperformed those who listened to plain music when it came to perceived focus, precognition, task persistence, and creative thinking.

Earbuds serve the same purpose but they’re not as visible to your colleagues and may not have the same impact. Everyone can see your headphones from across the office, sending a clear “Do Not Disturb” signal that you’re focused on your work.

Someone is less likely to interrupt you when you’re wearing headphones. If they’re looking for a friendly water cooler chat, they’ll move on to someone else who looks less preoccupied.

9. Create a Universal “Busy Signal”

We mentioned earlier that headphones can ward off interruptions, but they’re not the only solution. Another idea that works well in an open-plan office is to have one visual signal that means, “I am busy, do not interrupt me.”

Some companies have successfully used “Do Not Disturb” signs on the backs of chairs (or as plaques on the desk). Others use a colored flag on a monitor or beside a laptop to signal deep work. One company has successfully used LED light indicators that switch from a green to red to signal when employees are available to collaborate.

If most of your employees prefer earbuds to the aforementioned headphones, here’s another idea. You could introduce a simple system with these signals:

  • Two earbuds in means: “I’m focused on my work, do not interrupt me”
  • One earbud in means: “I’m available to answer a brief question”
  • Both earbuds out mean: “I’m ready to collaborate with my teammates”

There are no hard and fast rules here. It’s all about finding a system that works for you and your employees.

Use These Tips to Stay Focused in an Open Office

Whether you spend your days in an open office or you step out occasionally to work at your favorite coffee shop, take these focus tips with you.

Communicate with your team and find out what’s working and what isn’t inside the office. Proactively take steps to help everyone focus, from creating “busy signals” to establishing an interruption-free work hour. And remember that sometimes a brief change of scenery is all you need to hit the reset button and regain your focus.

If you do all these things, you (and everyone who works for you) will feel focused, productive, and happy.

Are you feeling inspired after reading these tips to stay focused? Don’t stop here! Continue your education with one of these must-read books that focus and productivity for executives and entrepreneurs like you.


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