Making Open Plan Work

Remember the days when the idea of an open-plan office was daring and new?  Nowadays, of course, they are commonplace -- indeed, fast becoming ubiquitous.  The advantages are clear -- open plan builds teamwork, facilitates communication, encourages social integration, fosters relationships, and reduces hierarchy (assuming, that is, that the gaffers have the wit to have workstations like everyone else, rather than still insisting on a private office).  Oh, and as an afterthought (?) it saves a lot of space (and a lot of rent!).

There are some disadvantages, though -- noise levels, difficulty of concentration, constant interruptions, and lack of privacy.

Recent research has shown that people in open plan offices switch tasks every three minutes (on average), roughly half of these changes of direction being caused by being interrupted.  Furthermore, after a switch it takes an average of over 23 minutes to get back to the task (this explains the phenomenon which we've probably all experienced at some time -- working hard all day, and then wondering at going-home time what we've actually achieved).

Noise is also, of course, a factor, and because we are hard-wired (by evolution) to be aware of what's going on around us (you can never be too careful -- someone might be creeping up behind you with a club, rather than a cup of coffee), this can contribute to the interruption problem.

Here’s a few strategies to help you concentrate --

  1. starting with the more obvious, get rid of booby traps -- put your phone out of sight (and in silent mode), turn off e-mail and messaging, and clean up your desk (anything in your peripheral vision will probably remind you of your obligations, and thus distract you
  2. block out distractions -- if you have a really tricky task which requires concentration, try wearing headphones -- not only will it reduce the noise level, but it sends a signal which is unmistakeable even to your colleagues -- "I'm busy, please come back later"
  3. focus on the most compelling tasks first -- twenty years ago Prof Nilli Lavie (from UCL's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) developed what is now the accepted theory of attention -- Load Theory.  This says that we have limited mental resources, so we need to focus them wisely -- and (paradoxically, perhaps) the more complex the task, the more we automatically shut out "white noise"
  4. train your brain -- it is thought that playing computer video games, or concentrated reading, makes your brain more able to pay attention
  5. be flexible -- try working at a standing desk for a change....  or in a coffee shop (noise from people you don't know is apparently less distracting)
  6. pay attention to what you eat and drink -- plenty of water (your brain needs it!), and avoid sugar and snacking (they make your blood sugar levels fluctuate too much)
  7. let your mind wander -- take a break to walk and/or stretch at least every 40 minutes (it's no accident that school lessons are no longer than this), or (if your mind wanders before then) redirect yourself to a "neutral" activity (e.g. tidying your desk -- or looking at the view for a short while) -- anything not involving a screen
  8. take a power nap -- ten minutes (but no more) will reboot your brain for at least another two to three hours

Even if you don't work in an open plan office, but work on your own, nearly all these bits of advice will help your productivity.

At a more strategic level, though, one of the most effective things you can do is to take (say) four hours away from the office entirely -- say, once a month -- concentrating on the business, not in it -- getting advice, support, challenge, and accountability from other business owners -- joining a TAB Board, in fact!  

Rosedale Advisory Limited t/a The Alternative Board (Sunderland)
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