Yes, it is possible to remain focussed in an open office.
Working in an open office comes with a few challenges.
From Sue whose personal life sounds like it's straight out of a soap opera, to Jimmy who needs your help with just about every single one of his tasks, to your boss who keeps shoving highly urgent tasks on your already full highly-urgent plate. And it's not even that you mind helping or listening, it's that their timing is usually awful.
It's not just you. Research shows that 58% of employees in open offices get distracted multiple times a day.
Not only do you not have four walls with a locked door that you’d love to decorate with a Do Not Disturb sign, but even when you aren’t approached by others there’s this constant hum of chatter and random bursts of laughter not even nearly far enough away from you - and have you ever noticed how loud (and annoying) the aircon is?!
You cannot seem to escape the interruptions and distractions and it’s starting to negatively affect your productivity and efficiency.
But we’ve found the cure. Here’s how to minimise your susceptibility to distractions and avoid disruptive social interactions in a professional manner (in other words, without by screaming, swearing or violence).
1. Be forthcoming
“Hey Sue, can you tell me about your drunk uncle’s disastrous dance moves a little later, or like, after I’ve finished this report? I’ll come to you straight afterwards.” Then smile politely, put your head down and continue working on that report.
Read: How to say no (politely)
If it’s your boss: you can stop him, relay what you’re currently in the middle of working on, and tell him you'll put that next on your list. He can’t hate on something as diplomatic as this: “Sure thing, but let me finish this [other urgent thing you asked me to do earlier] I’m working on and I’ll stop by your office as soon as I hit a safe stopping point.”
If he really insists on an answer and it catches you off guard and leads you to draw a blank, try “Uhm, let me double check first because I’d rather give you an answer I’m certain about."
And tell Jimmy, “This isn’t a good time... definitely later, just remind me again,” especially if what you’re doing really holds higher priority than what he needs.
You have to teach people how to treat you and setting the groundwork is important so that you can stop bad behaviour before it escalates.
2. Cutting the conversation
Yeah, not everyone has the guts to deny the gift of lending our brains, ears, and time to co-workers and struggle with assertiveness. So you allow them some face time but immediately regret it because it’s taking longer than you bargained for.
Let them down easy with an I-really-don’t-want-to-leave-but-I-must type of reply. Saying “Too bad I’m on a deadline today. I need to get back to work now though,” should suffice.
However, if doing and saying these things really makes you uncomfortable (maybe you're a recent graduate and you're scared of making a bad impression) and you’d just wish they’d start avoiding you altogether, you’ll have to make slight changes to your physical environment.
Sure, team spirit is important but ultimately, so too is productivity.
3. Get a plant
Or any object that’s big enough to block your personal space from accidental direct eye contact from approaching too-social co-workers. It can be a hat, or a biggish desk drawer, or align your computer screen to obstruct your vision. Think of it as your mini four wall office.
The point is to make it harder for them to grab your attention and for you to remain focussed even when glancing around.
4. Try headphones not earphones
It seems people are still likely to intrude if they know you only have to take out one earphone to talk to you. Headphones, on the other hand, scream Concentrating on Important Things Right Now - it’s a little more intimidating than tiny string-thin earphones.
Even when you’re not listening to music, headphones have a natural noise reduction effect when they’re on your head. Can you imagine: Ahhhh silence...
5. Sweet stuff shall attract flies
The key is to not be too sweet and friendly. If you’re the office candy distributor, nearby restaurants menu holder, or interesting gadgets owner, then you’re bound to attract the inquisitive and hungry office dwellers.
Unless you have designated drawers, boxes, holders or tables where co-workers can help themselves, they’re going to ask you ‘Can I…?’ all day. In fact, if you’re a hard copy receiver, invest in shelves that can be labelled (clearly) so that colleagues know where to drop documents without asking ‘Where’d you like me to drop this?’
Hopefully, everyone will get the message. Although, for your own sanity, you have to realise one thing:
It is after all an open office, and distractions and interruptions are part of this territory and impossible to eliminate completely. Especially when it comes to your superiors, you must respect your manager’s need to interrupt you - their deadlines and schedules are probably more important than yours - aren't they the ones that set those deadlines in the first place?
Even though it's possible to limit them, you will need to come to terms with the fact that unpleasant situations are simply part of being a working professional. But if you would like a different office culture, Careers24 has 1000s of job opportunities from top South African companies who’d love to employ you.