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Dear Anna,

I’ve recently moved into open plan after many years in an office and I’m finding it hard to concentrate. What can I do to adjust to this new arrangement?

Sam

Open-plan offices have obvious cost savings for firms and were sold on the promise of increased communication and collaboration. Unfortunately, this was more hope than evidence-based, with the ability of professionals to concentrate strongly influenced by noise and physical proximity. The good news is there are steps you can take to work effectively in open plan. 

Match task to place

Align the level of concentration needed with the best place to work. Take advantage of quiet spaces and drop-in areas where you can work for a couple of hours away from crowds. Try to find two or three options and use them regularly for different types of tasks so they start to feel comfortable. You can also include working flexibly from a home office, quiet garden or train trip home to match your task list to physical noise and distractions. Open-plan spaces were designed for people to move around and use different areas, but it’s a big change if you are used to working in the same place each day – walls or not. 

Music as walls

Use headphones to replace the noise with music to reduce distraction. A study in the Academy of Management Review in 2018 found that the key, tempo, complexity and volume all make a difference. Bee Gees for billing and Miles Davis for creative problem solving. Music is very effective at changing our mood, so create a playlist of favourites that can counterbalance the irritation of the loud colleague with the winter sniffles. Noise-cancelling headphones could be your new best friend – playing music or just sweet silence to block out the chaos. 

Move your allocated desk

If your firm or team is in open plan with allocated desks, you might need to request a desk that fits your preferences. Some people like being in the centre of the action near the walkways and doorways where they can easily connect with people walking past. Others find each movement a break in their concentration. Natural light and what you see when you look up from a screen can also make a difference. Talk about what you need with the right people and negotiate an option that works for you.

Move together

High-performing teams use shared work patterns to increase performance. Try quiet concentration time in the mornings and general banter in the afternoon. Quiet days early in the week and more noisy collaboration and discussion as Friday approaches. Raise the issue in a team meeting and see if others are prepared to try it. Think of it as the equivalent of the quiet zone in the airport lounge for a couple of hours a day to really maximise productivity and take the edge of the frustrations about working in open plan.