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How to survive an open office.

·1560 words·8 mins·

my office

I’ve been struggling for some time to find a decent enough guide to actually accomplish anything meaningful (other than ad-hoc break-fix work) in my office.

One of the things I know is that this problem seems to affect me more than others, so for many people this advice (or lamentation) might seem like it comes from a weird place.

Especially since this is the first-worldiest of first-world problems.

However, for me, if I have some work that really must be done I end up doing it at home. When I’m in the office I just work on things as I get interrupted and cannot possibly focus on anything for more than 15 minutes. When I go home I feel exhausted, if I have enough energy I do the work I really needed to do in the day. – it’s not even that I don’t have the time to do it during the day, it’s just that I end up procrastinating because I can’t get focused.

Ironically I get significantly more accomplished for my job on vacation.

Anyway, in my searches for a way to cope I came across this video from “The Globe and Mail” where a young lady by the name of Leanne Devi (VP of Knightsbridge leadership solutions) gives some advice.

Her opening statement and a brief of her comments:

One of the big issues we see all the time is productivity in modern offices, so we’ve got more stress than ever, more to accomplish but increasingly we’re using open office spaces to create collaboration. The problem is, as soon as you try and get work done in an open space like that, distractions are everywhere.

Her advice is:

So one of the things that I really recommend to people is that you Create an imaginary office even when theres’ no door to actually close. There are several ways to do that, in our office we’ve done that with those really great noise cancelling headphones.

Her other points fall under:

Have a unique ringtone

So that when a phone rings you know if it’s yours or not. (idk anyone who leaves there ringer on in 2019 though)

Learn hand signals

Not quite sign language, but more polite gestures.

Avoid conversations

She says “in the main area” but, let’s be real here, it’s all the main area.

Now, I know this advice is from 2014 (4.5 years old at this point), but her advice is basically all I ever really hear, aside from the ringtone thing.

There’s a bunch of reasons the above advice is just, really bad, and personally I find the suggestions of “avoiding conversations” to be completely contradicting to the supposed objective of open office space.

I’m not going to go into “why they suck” or “what is a better office” because; if you’re reading this, then you’ve almost certainly not got the backing of management. And ultimately this is their call. Although if you’re in tech I would highly advise mentioning that you need more money if there’s an open office in your next interview (somewhere around 20% as that’s what the estimates say they’re saving in the short term).

Personally I don’t see any upside to open office aside short-term cost savings, since studies have consistently shown that over the long term the cost is higher, taking into account lost productivity from sickness, distraction and worker attrition.


Headphone use has obvious benefits for enhancing your sound privacy, however the drawbacks are that:

  • your ears get warm
  • they don’t fully isolate sound
  • they compress your head
  • make you feel tired with >1hr use
  • you might feel that there must be something playing audio

They’re not a panacea, it’s not practical to use them all day, but I’ll come back to this.

Avoid Conversations

Obviously this is not possible and the antithesis of the purported reason for doing open office space. What can you do instead?

Well, avoid interrupting people. This is super tempting when they’re “right there” but honestly just do your absolute best to use the tech tools that are available, hit them up on slack or IRC or MS teams or whatever.

Why would we do this? because the purported reason we have open offices is actually astonishingly false. If everyone feels like they won’t be interrupted, perhaps we can sit shoulder to shoulder and make a “virtual” office space, as the lady in the video said in her opening statement.

So, yeah, avoid starting new conversations, and if everyone is able to do so, it might just help. No management buy-in needed.

Doesn’t do much for those people on conference calls all the time though. Ideally you should push for “people closets” or “phone booths”, they also work as the inverse like “quiet rooms”.

Try to get head high (when seated) dividers

Now, this needs more management buy-in and you might stick out. BUT! there is significant evidence that removing visual distractions while seated goes a really long way to helping preserve the feeling of visual privacy and enhances focus.

Productivity lowers linearly as the size of the divider falls to eye height.

Avoid any company doing “Hot desking”

Just don’t work anywhere that does this, unless they also have private rooms and much more desks than employees. This is just a nice name for competitive desk hunting.

Aim for flexibility

Ideally when you start out, talk to your boss, talk to your manager, explain that distractions come easy and that you’d really prefer to do more remote working or work odd hours.

Make sure you frame it correctly, because companies/managers might see it as you trying to take advantage, you need it just to get the work done, in the most productive way you know how.

Perception is reality

People who are seen, are seen as hard working. So you need to remain visible, which might be hard because you’re balancing perception with productivity.

Bosses love people who come in before them, but hate people that stay late. They might not say this directly, and it certainly doesn’t apply everywhere. But the perception is that “the early bird gets the worm” vs “oh, I didn’t manage to get all my work done”. As a night owl this is especially displeasing, but it’s the way it is.

Take care of yourself

Make sure you’re finding a good time to recharge, the open offices space can be draining and being in that very stimulating environment for an unbroken 9 hours is especially draining. Finding ways to break up the day and find quiet space, or getting a good music list setup that takes you out of the environment. (noise cancelling headphones would probably help here)

Get practical

You can make visual cues to signal if you’re interruptible. People use noise cancelling headphones for this too (see, they’re useful, just not a panacea), but the issue is it conflicts with perception is reality, you need to be available sometimes,

Ask to have quiet times

This is different from asking for flexible work, this is more about asking for a time to put on “do not disturb” mode, or setting up some kind of sign that you’re not to be interrupted. This can be invaluable if you really need to be in the office.

Shift your hours

Not much different from having more flexibility in general, but if you can’t do that to work from a coffee shop or something then try to shift your hours, this is easier as most companies have some kind of flexi-time.

Ideally this would be to work earlier hours, because as I mentioned it’s perceived as being more hardworking, but this can be a huge saving grace, even if your company doesn’t allow you to get too flexible with the hours you work in the day or where you work from, you can usually come in early and leave late.

Compartmentalise the type of work

This can be frustrating, but if you’re coming in early in the morning and leaving earlier in the day to really ensure the minimum amount of “interrupt” hours, it is well worth using the interrupt time to do small improvements to your next days agenda. Knowing what your next task in the morning will be when you have that quiet focus time and just pounding it out can be very fulfilling and might even give you the energy needed to get through the rest of the day.

Save email responses to your interrupt time, don’t check emails in the morning when you come in.

Don’t eat at your desk

This is an awful habit, you need the break from the open office environment.

It’s also quite distracting for your colleagues.

Switch jobs

If you really can’t work, there’s really no point sticking around.

You don’t owe anything to the company really, and if they can’t respect your productivity then maybe it’s not worth burning yourself out trying to please them. We’re not cattle, we have significant leverage as a group (technology), and it’s not worth your health.

Even if you take a pay cut, it can be worth it, remote work is another alternative since remote workers are roughly 13.5% more productive on average than even the most highly performing office workers, and all that saved commute time!

Jan Harasym
Chief Technology Officer