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13 Ways to Focus in an Open Office

May 26, 2015

What many once hoped would be a collaborative utopia has since proved itself to be a hellish den of distraction. Okay, maybe it’s not that extreme. In reality, the open office is a sometimes-fun setup that breeds both camaraderie and frustration. Love them or hate them, if you work in one, you’ll inevitably have moments when you’d like to lock yourself into a soundproof pod. (Do any companies have those? Talk about progressive!)

But there is hope. We spoke to dozens of open-office workers and pooled their collective knowledge. Below, we present 13 coping mechanisms to help you stay focused in a sea of people who just want to “quickly touch base.”

1. Get headphones. Big ones.

Headphones are the first line of defense against in-office distraction, and they serve a dual purpose. “Not only do headphones drown out the noise, but they also serve as a signal that I don’t want to be bothered unless it’s important,” says an eBay employee we spoke to. “Bose noise-canceling headphones are expensive, but so worth it. I probably use them for three hours a day.” (Bonus: You can use them to combat ambient noise, even if you aren’t actually listening to music.)

2. Spring for a Spotify subscription.

Music streaming services like Spotify (or Songza or Pandora) offer an array of themed playlists that will help keep you on task. Spotify’s “Deep Focus” is a current favorite.

3. Select your music strategically.

“When I worked in an open office, I didn’t listen to music I liked, because then I’d want to sing along,” says freelance writer Ashlea Halpern. “Instead, I’d find some Top 40 song I didn’t care about and just play that over and over. It became like white noise.” Or there’s editor Chris Schonberger’s approach: “I listen to ‘Greensleeves’ on repeat.”

4. Seek out quiet corners.

When you need to get away from your desk, make use of common spaces in your office—both official (phone booths, conference rooms, lounges) and unofficial (hallways, stairwells, storage rooms). “I used to reserve a conference room and pretend to make a call,” says entrepreneur Chris Dannen. “But then I’d just take the phone off the hook so it looked like I was on hold.”

5. Mix it up.

Sometimes a fresh vantage point yields a fresh opportunity for concentration. “I spend at least half of each day in a seat other than my desk seat—at the lunch table, in a decorative phone booth, on a couch, in a conference room,” says Hadley Quish, an account manager at Kiip. “Sometimes it’s to avoid chatter, sometimes to sit near different people, or sometimes just to look at a wall instead of humans for a few minutes.”

6. Take walking meetings.

Unless you need a computer or other equipment to facilitate your meeting, get out of dodge. Discuss the topics at hand while walking to the nearest park or just around the block. Plus, ideas flow more freely when you’re in motion.

7. Just say “go away.”

When conversation moves your way, it’s okay to shut it down. “When you’re in the middle of something, you can always say ‘no’ or ‘not now’ to people who want to ‘pick your brain for a second’,” says Kim Anderson, a senior strategist at a branding consultancy.

8. Perfect your “resting bitch face” (RBF).

If your expression and body language say “I’m in the zone,” people will be less likely to interrupt you. When you’re in deep concentration mode, it’s okay to keep your head down (literally) and avoid eye contact with others, even if you can tell they’re subtly trying to get your attention.

ways to focus in an open office

9. Put up a sign.

If your coworkers can’t take the hint (earphones, RBF), you might have to resort to extreme measures. Elena Henwood, a research scientist, did just that: “I put a sign outside of my cubicle that said, ‘Quiet please, research in progress’.”

10. Leave for lunch.

If you have to spend all day in close confines with coworkers, take full advantage of your midday break. “I always try to leave for lunch,” says Alexis Anderson, who oversees partnerships at BarkBox, which has a famously dog-friendly office. “I need to take space from the lovable chaos, even if it’s just a quick walk around the block.”

11. Stick to a schedule.

Now and again, you will get sucked into a lengthy impromptu conversation or an aggressive game of in-office ping-pong. That’s okay, but find ways to bring yourself back from distraction. “I literally invite myself, via calendar date, to various to-do’s every day,” says Anderson. “It forces me to focus on the day’s tasks.”

12. Lobby for office-wide systems that promote quiet.

Platforms like Gchat and Slack allow employees to communicate without actually having to talk. If you’re in a position to implement them (or to request that your boss implement them), hop to it.

13. Work outside the office when you can.

This one falls in the “duh” category along with earphones, but it’s important. If your job allows you to work from home on occasion, do so. If not, you can still slip out for an hour here and there to work from a park, a coffee shop, or another quiet spot near your office.

Full disclosure: This post was written in the quietude of the public library a few blocks from the MM.LaFleur office.

Photos by Lindsay Brown


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Tory Hoen is the Creative Director of Brand at MM.LaFleur and the founding editor of The M Dash. She has written for New York Magazine, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, and Time Out New York. Current home base: Brooklyn. Current spirit animal: serval. Read more of Tory's posts.


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