Open offices can be harsh environments. You never know what dangers are hidden behind you until the interruption arrives.

Productivity plummets, concentration is gone, the thread of reasoning destroyed in a moment. All of this caused by a casual question, a polite salute, an unsolicited tentative of small talk:

Source

Google today returns over 165M results for How to survive the Open Office, this post is my useless personal and semi-serious contribution to the topic.

Open Office Survival Guide

Let’s start with the basic rules to survive in an Open Office environment.

The goal is to leverage the benefits of this peculiar environment to increase communication, in terms of quality over quantity, and to protect productivity from the dangers the Open Office introduces.

Headphones

Headphones are the first defense between the brain and the interruptions and hopefully a clear DO NOT DISTURB sign for colleagues sharing the same space.

I personally prefer models with Noise Cancel and a Directional Mic close to the mouth to avoid unwanted guests during the calls. Even the best brands with embedded mic usually fail to filter neighbor’s voices.

Some headphones provide feedback of the speaker’s voice helps to keep the volume of voice low.

For respect of the people on the other side of the call never use cheap headphones, the ones you get with the phone. They usually have very bad mic and do a lot of noise when moving.

My current choice: Plantronic Voyager Focus

Lunch

Lunch time can be a great opportunity to to work without distractions and interruptions.

This doesn’t mean to skip the break or eating in front of the PC, that’s not healthy!

Shifting lunch time earlier or later can be a way to enjoy 30 to 60 minutes of peace and productive focused work. There is less people in the room and nobody expects you to answer the phone or email during that time range.

Not sure this applies to all countries and cultures but in Europe is usually works.

Agenda

Taking control of our personal agenda, protecting time slots assigned to focused work is a key point to survive in the wastelands of the Open Office.

The most important skill to learn is to say NO.

No to unplanned not important work, no to trivial tasks, apply extreme Pareto rules when necessary, be prepared to make some people unhappy and accept the fact.

The Eisenhower Matrix is an effective visual help to decide priorities. Print it and keep it in sight, if necessary explain how it works to your colleagues and boss so they understand why you making some choices.

I shared in a page some recommended reading about focus and prioritization.

These books can help to better understand why and how the most important thing is to protect our time, with some advice of tools and methods to make it work.

Involve HR

If you can’t beat join them. HR can be a powerful ally to survive in the Open Office.

Some people simply don’t get it an need explicit rules to behave. Get the HR team on board to define these rules and to create a sane Open Office culture.

Some examples

  • use internal IM tools as much as possible for real-time communications, avoid phone or even worse don’t walk to people’s desk to ask for attention unless a Zombie Apocalypse is happening
  • respect busy status on IM
  • headphones on means virtual office door is closed
  • keep voice low
  • personal hygiene is important (kidding… or not?)
  • no smelly food

You got the idea, an open discussion with HR and colleagues will help to get most people on board and others will learn eventually.

Stay in the office till late / arrive eralier

Nope. No way. This is not a solution!

Some people can’t complete the tasks in the day’s schedule because unplanned work getting on the way. This is not a specific problem of Open Office but the lack of a door to close can make it worse.

Don’t try to solve productivity issue working longer hours, it is not a solution.

First reason is the number of hours in a day cannot scale and second the quality of work decreases when the brain is tired.

The only solution is to apply essentialism an proper prioritization. Learn to do that, there a not shortcuts but the results will have an impact for your whole career.

Wrap Up

This post is at the same time serious and facetious on purpose. My message for all the poor Open Office workers is to find a way to be productive despite being in an environment that seems designed against focused work.

Once you master that skill you’ll be able to work in any condition, you’ll have a stronger willing and focus power that will be useful in many other cases. See the half-full glass.

In part two of this post I’ll write about the concept of Open Office in general.

Stay tuned.