There are multiple benefits of a team working together instead of remote working separately. The sense of camaraderie is heightened and being able to discuss or develop ideas together is useful for collaborative work.
However, an open plan office can make it difficult to find focus. There’s always a conversation you could be joining or an opinion to debate. There might be phones ringing, buzzers buzzing and all sorts of distractions that you wouldn’t have when working in solitude. Teammates always want a quick five minutes of your time and it’s easy to mistake someone’s physical presence in the room for their availability.
Mastering the open plan office means never feeling like you need to go elsewhere to be able to concentrate. It means minimising the number of times your concentration is broken and let you access flow and do the deep work that makes a difference. It can avoid you taking work home or feeling overwhelmed.
Learn to master it with these six steps.
1. Don’t add your two cents
Not every open discussion needs your opinion or comment and you can always opt out of contributing. Choosing to join in means choosing to ignore the work you’re doing. It means procrastination wins whilst the quality and quantity of your output suffers.
Contribute when you have something valuable to say and don’t further conversation for no good reason. This will shorten unnecessary group conversations as well as reducing the culture of “chipping in”.
2. Make policies
When the time is right, create and agree policies with your team members that enable you to work harmoniously. At my social media agency we have a rule where we don’t talk across people. If person A wants to speak to person C, but person B is between them, they will have the discussion elsewhere rather than over B’s head or space.
Your policies could include where you take calls, or specific hours designated to concentration. I’ve heard of some offices having a “library policy” designed to put focus and concentration first.
3. Use visual cues
If you don’t want to be disturbed you need to look like you don’t want to be disturbed. Sitting there smiling signals that you want to chat. Exaggerating your reactions, huffing and puffing or laughing out loud, prompts others to ask questions and check you’re OK. Facing away, typing furiously, in deep concentration and with headphones on says “I’m plugged in, leave me to it.”
As well as controlling how approachable you look, remove all other distractions. Put your phone out of your immediate reach, clear your desk of clutter, close browser tabs you’re not using and turn off notifications. For maximum focus, make it just you and whatever you’re creating.
4. Tell people
If you haven’t made it clear that you’re zoning out of the room and into your work, don’t expect your colleagues to guess. Tell them. Use your messaging system to say you’re signing out to concentrate and then go offline. If you like, include what you’re working on and when you will be available and guard your boundaries until then.
If you’re interrupted when you’ve done this, use a polite, “I’m in the middle of something. I’ll talk to you at [time].”
5. Agree on what constitutes an emergency
When planning your policies, agree on what constitutes an emergency. There are rarely any real emergencies. Start from the dictionary definition, “a serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.” The key is “immediate action”. If something can feasibly wait until you’re finished with your concentration time then it’s not an emergency.
There are different needs depending on the type of business, but a universal definition of “emergency” still applies and is crucial in determining when someone’s concentration can be interrupted.
6. Practice what you preach
If you want your colleagues to recognise your visual cues and not attempt to get your attention when you’re in the zone, you need to reciprocate. Don’t interrupt others when they’re in their zone and plan ahead to avoid asking for last-minute help and disrupting someone else’s flow. Approach teammates with the conscientiousness you would like for yourself.
Giving an issue deeper thought might mean you don’t need anyone else’s input. Have the conversation in your head first. Pre-empt their response or follow up questions and plan accordingly, checking with them when they are actually available. Make the most of the time you do have with them by listening carefully and making notes, and develop resourcefulness and independence for when you’re on your own.
Concentrating in an open plan office involves team-wide agreement on expected conduct that is followed without exception. Plan ahead, set your boundaries, guard them fiercely and be conscientious with those around you.