How to Survive & Thrive in an Open Office

Working in an open office comes with its challenges. Constant noise and visual stimuli can make it difficult to stay focused. As an introvert, I gain energy from quiet time spent in solitude. Yet, I still find the benefits of a cubicle-less work environment far outweigh the drawbacks.

Atomic Object’s Grand Rapids office has two floors of open office space. Each level also contains several enclosed conference rooms and phone booths. Because the space is thoughtfully designed to accommodate varying work styles, you’ll also find plenty of private cozy corners for Atoms seeking uninterrupted focus time.

Learning to embrace the opportunities (and navigate the challenges) of the open office environment has gone a long way toward improving my experience and productivity at work. Here’s my approach to surviving and even thriving in this type of environment.

Take Advantage of the Benefits

  1. Collaboration: In contrast to cubicle farms, open offices promote working together and collaborative problem-solving. Working actively as part of a team allows each Atom to play to their strengths, and it fosters the feeling that we’re all on common ground and in this situation together. An open, modular workspace is also key for successful pairing.
  2. Culture collision: Outside of the intentional collaboration which happens naturally in an open office space, unexpected conversations or “culture collisions” are more likely to occur. Spontaneous conversations encourage small talk, which, according to a study from Duke University, can actually boost cognitive brain function. Overall productivity improves when people are given time to socialize. In fact, having just one friend at work can vastly improve overall satisfaction and employee retention.
  3. Flexibility: In addition to the collaborative and social benefits, the open office space also allows for modularity and flexibility. At the start of a new project, Atoms can be seen moving to new desks, pulling up whiteboards, and designating a zone where the team can work together. Sitting in a pod with my team often leads to impromptu brainstorming sessions. As a Delivery Lead, there’s a definite benefit to being able to overhear and immediately address problems or issues which may be blocking my team.

Deal with the Drawbacks

Certainly one of the biggest downsides of our wall-less workspace is the ever-present hustle and bustle. According to an Oxford Economics study, only one percent of employees say they are able to block out distractions and concentrate without taking extra steps in the office. These distractions come in many forms, but so do your options for addressing them.

  1. Noise: While the din of a coffee shop might enhance your focus, it can be difficult to overhear the conversations of neighboring project teams without listening in. It might be time to pop on those headphones and cue up some Noisli to customize your own personal blend of white noise. I find it difficult to listen to music without focusing on the lyrics or singing along, so for work jams, I tend to stick to lofi hip hop radio.
  2. Visual distractions: Aside from chatter, activity within your line of sight can also break your focus. Part of the beauty of an open office is the ability to change your scenery, so that might mean moving away from the printer, out of the line of fridge traffic, or next to a window for some natural light. If moving isn’t an option, consider adding some tall plants behind your monitor to encase yourself in a snug jungle of uninterrupted focus.
  3. Traffic: If all else fails, try shifting your schedule to maximize quiet time at the office. Take advantage of the beginning/end of the day when there’s less activity, or shift your lunch hour to gain some afternoon quiet time.

Communication is essential to any type of cohabitation, and the office is no exception. Do your neighbor’s Nerf gun wars always seem to commence the minute you sit down to prep for an important meeting? Address frustrations directly before they build up into resentment. Similarly, do what you can to be a respectful neighbor to others in your shared space.

I suggest practicing mindfulness and being proactive about focusing at work. A few new habits or a slight change in routine could make all the difference when it comes to increasing your comfort level and harnessing the full potential of your open office.