Staying Productive in an Open Office Floor Plan

Microkitchens. Whiteboard walls. Huddle rooms. Office design has come a long way. As both young startups and established companies put more emphasis on collaboration, office spaces have followed suit.

Perhaps the most conspicuous symbol of this evolution is the open floor plan. In addition to promoting a sense of equality, open office floor plans enable transparency and open communication. They help teams form tight bonds and ensure that workers can get their boss’s ear quickly and casually. They create opportunities for serendipitous brainstorming that a cubicle maze never could. And they’re especially attractive for startups looking to minimize costs and maximize flexibility.

This more casual approach to office space can make for happier employees, but open office floor plans also carry a few serious drawbacks including noise, lack of privacy and disruption. While these first two concerns can be a nuisance, the vulnerability to distractions and disturbances is a real productivity killer.

Maybe you have a deadline that you need to make. Maybe your creative process requires absolute focus. Or maybe some of your coworkers are feeling just a little too social today. Regardless of the reason, there are days you just have to put your head down and get work done.

So, if you work in an open office floor plan environment, can you still find ways to stay focused? Here are a few ideas for solving this challenge.

The headphone rule

It turns out that at companies with open office floor plans there is at least one universal “Do Not Disturb” signal: wearing headphones.

“I put on headphones to signal that I’m unavailable,” explains Hazel Jennings, who has worked at several Silicon Valley tech companies. “I don’t even have music playing half the time.”

At San Francisco-based startup Charge, which makes a messaging app, the headphone rule reigns even though they’ve only recently set up their office. They also have a solution when communication is necessary, says Charge software engineer John Donley.

“If someone is wearing headphones and you want to communicate with them, you send a Slack message and they can respond as they see fit. Sometimes the conversation continues on Slack, and sometimes the headphones come off,” Donley says.

That’s consistent with our own practices here at Highfive. We try not to interrupt anyone wearing headphones, opting for sending a Slack message instead. But it’s not a perfect solution.

When headphones aren’t enough

While the headphone signal is universally understood at most of these companies, that doesn’t mean it’s universally respected or fail proof. New employees don’t always know the rules, headphones (especially earbuds) can be covered by long hair or hoodies, and unfortunately, some people just don’t get the message that you’re trying to focus.

When Jennings is in crunch mode, she takes more drastic measures to get the privacy she needs to work without disruption.

“I’ll even turn off my WiFi and put my phone in airplane mode to make sure I can hit my deadlines without interruptions,” says Jennings. “Or sometimes I find another common space so people aren’t dropping by my desk with quick questions.”

This works if your company happens to have a big campus. However, some may find it hard to escape if they work in a smaller office.

More strategies for “Do Not Disturb” mode

So what do you do if donning headphones or escaping to an isolated corner just isn’t working?

A number of companies are starting to market products to help you send a more explicit message to co-workers that you don’t want to be disturbed.

Luxafor is an opensource LED that plugs into a USB port on your laptop and changes color depending on your availability status. Green signals that you’re available, red means “do not disturb.” It can even be synced with your productivity apps so that signals change automatically.

This is an upgrade from the lifehacks developed by some office-dwellers.

Other offices have integrated much more intentional isolated corners into their office designs. These “phone booths” are similar to the study kiosks often found in academic libraries.

But sometimes the best option is being upfront with your colleagues.

“I’ve had people stop by my desk and say ‘Hazel, can I get your eyes on this for a second?’ and responded, ‘Actually no. I need to finish this first. I’ll email you in an hour or so.’ The same goes for the other way around. When people have asked me to leave them alone, I’ve always appreciated their honesty. Open office floor plans help create strong communities and increase collaboration, and part of that deal means being open and honest with your team about what you need.”

This is the most important takeaway for any company that wants to put collaboration first, and it’s something we’re trying to cement within our own culture at Highfive. As individuals, we’re all responsible for managing our own productivity for the greater good of the company. If we all agree to this, then protecting our need to stay focused shouldn’t cause offense, but instead engender mutual respect.