Staying Focused in a Noisy Open Office

By Rebecca Knight – The Harvard Business Review

Let’s face it: The open office can be a nightmare, especially when you’re working on something that requires your undivided attention.

To make matters worse, your colleagues can be distracting — maybe they’re having loud conversations or their cell phones are constantly chirping. How can you make peace with your open office? How should you handle loud coworkers who are disturbing your focus? What’s the best way to cope with the noise and distractions in your office without coming across as antisocial or rude?

What the Experts Say


There is an ongoing debate about the pros and cons of open offices. Some research indicates they spark creativity and camaraderie, while newer studiessuggest that open offices encourage employees to avoid one another. When designed well, these spaces can foster collaboration by “offering opportunities for serendipitous interactions with people all over the company,” says David Burkus, an associate professor at Oral Roberts University and the author of the forthcoming book Friend of a Friend. The trouble is, all those interactions “can be very distracting” when you’re trying to get work done. But as companies increasingly adopt an open layout, it’s important to learn how to deal with unwanted noise, says Karen Dillon, the author of the HBR Guide to Office Politics. You need your own “survival strategies” as well as some ground rules that you and your team can agree to. Here are some ideas.

Embrace the positives


We all crave some solitude in the workplace. After all, there’s a certain level of psychological safety that comes with having an “office with a door,” says Dillon. That modicum of privacy ensures that “your colleagues can’t overhear your phone calls” or know precisely which “websites you’re browsing” at any given time. And yet, she says, “There’s a lot of benefit to getting to know your colleagues on a more intimate level. There’s laughter, there’s humor, and you feel the rhythm of each other’s work and lives.” Dillon recommends trying to embrace the open office concept by focusing on the positives, “the bonding,” and downplaying the negatives, “the occasional TMI.” At the very least, resist your impulse to be the first to grumble about the noise, says Burkus. You don’t want people to see you as persnickety or difficult.


Align team expectations

Instead of griping, Burkus suggests, have a conversation with your team about how you can all work optimally in an open office. You should first speak to your manager since it’s best if this discussion is “instigated by leadership,” Burkus says. He recommends telling your boss, “I’d like to get the conversation going, but I don’t think I’m the right person to bring it up. Can you help?” As a team, your collective goal is to come up with “agreed-upon norms that you’ll all operate within,” says Burkus. For example, when one colleague is on the phone, the rest will speak only in whispers. “Ask for explicit and implicit support,” adds Dillon. She suggests “picking an ally who can be a second set of eyes for you,” so that if coworkers are being noisy when you’re on an important call, for example, this colleague could politely ask them to pipe down. “And you will do the same for that person.”


Invest in headphones

Dillon recommends purchasing a set of noise-canceling headphones for those times when you are “working on something that requires intense concentration.” You can listen to white noise or classical music or whatever it is that helps you feel and perform at your best. Headphones also “serve as a visual cue to your colleagues” that you’re not to be disturbed unless it’s absolutely necessary. “Use discretion in how often you use them,” Dillon warns. “Show that you are still part of the team.” Burkus says that he knows of teams that have a de facto “earbud code” that colleagues use to signify their level of focus. “Two earbuds in means ‘Leave me alone. I’m concentrating.’ One earbud in and one out means ‘Ask before interrupting me.’ And both earbuds out means ‘I’m interruptible.’”


Move around the office

Everyone needs a place at work where it’s possible to “think, write, and brainstorm free of distractions,” says Dillon. And even the most open of open offices tends to have discrete spaces that allow employees to remove themselves from the commotion. You should take full advantage of empty conference rooms, semi-private cubicles, and quiet alcoves, says Burkus. “Confront that mental block you have about staying in the desk you were assigned to,” he adds. That way, “when your chatty colleague starts talking about last night’s Game of Thrones, you can just take your laptop and move to a different part of the office.” A tip for those who work in large companies: “It’s often helpful to move to a different floor of your building,” says Burkus. “People aren’t as apt to know you and, therefore, you’re less likely to be distracted.”


Leave the office (temporarily)

If concentrating at your office proves difficult, Burkus recommends asking your boss for permission to work elsewhere — the local library or a nearby cafe — on occasion. Depending on what you’re working on, “pay attention to where you feel comfortable and where you are most productive,” and frame your request around that. For instance, you might say to your manager, “When I write these reports I need to be focused. Can I go across the street to work at the coffee shopto do this work?” This is a “smaller ask” than requesting to “work from home one day a week,” and therefore it’s harder to refuse.


Ask to permanently move desks

If your problem isn’t the open office per se, but one talkative and very loud coworker, it might be time to “speak with your manager about moving desks,” says Dillon. “You shouldn’t suffer.” Don’t complain, however. Instead, talk to your boss “about how you will be more productive” in a new space. She suggests saying something like, “It will be easier for me to stay on deadline if I move to a place that is quieter.” Whatever you do, don’t let your annoyance “bubble up” so that you one day scream at your colleagues to shut up, says Dillon. An outburst like that “is very hard to repair,” she says.


Principles to Remember 


  • Talk with your manager and your team about how you can all work optimally in an open office.
  • Purchase a set of noise-canceling headphones for those times when you are working on something that requires intense concentration.
  • Investigate private spaces in your office where you can think, write, and brainstorm free of distraction.


  • Be difficult. Try to embrace the positive benefits of an open office plan.
  • Go at it alone. Ask a trusted colleague to run interference for you from time to time and promise to do the same for that person.
  • Suffer in silence. Speak to your manager about moving desks if you feel it will improve your productivity.


Case Study #1: Be positive, and distance yourself from distractions when necessary

Zeba Rashid, who specializes in celebrity event management, has worked in many different kinds of office environments over the course of her career. She prefers open offices to a more corporate setting with closed doors and high cubicle walls.

“[My job] is all about connecting with others, and I find that an open setting is conducive to both idea flow and personal connection,” says Zeba. “I also find that having a running dialogue in the office gets my creativity flowing.”

While Zeba focuses on the positive aspects of her open environment, she readily admits that it is not optimal for when she needs to be “laser focused” on her work.

In her current job as vice president and director of influencer marketing at CRC, a New York City-based public relations and digital marketing agency, Zeba has learned how to deal with noise and distraction. “When I am working on high-level contracts or proposals, I often put on my headphones,” she says. The headphones provide a signal to her colleagues that she is “working on a time-sensitive deadline” that requires silence. Importantly, they “don’t intrude on anyone else’s conversations” in the office. “That is key: Open space is all about respect,” Zeba says.

Recently, while working on an important deadline, she reserved a conference room in the office to give herself some physical distance from her colleagues’ conversations. “I think the biggest issue in an open space is setting up the social protocols,” she says. “I always find that being direct and nicely excusing myself goes a long way towards goodwill.”

She simply told her team, “I’m working on finalizing a celebrity contract at the moment, and so I will be in the conference room if you need me for anything urgent.” Most people are there to work, so it isn’t hard to break away and disconnect from chatter when necessary.”

Zeba says she and her colleagues have developed close working relationships over time, “so we know how to work with each other and when we need the non-chatter” zone. “Working in an open office environment allows me be approachable and accessible for everyone,” she says.


Case Study #2: Develop ground rules and find a way to quiet your brain

Kaitlin Stewart, senior account executive at the TASC Group, the public relations agency, works in an open office with eight of her colleagues. Her boss, the cofounder, has a semi-private office, and there’s also a half-enclosed conference room for smaller meetings.

For the most part, Kaitlin views the open office as beneficial for her team’s camaraderie. “It allows for a lot of collaboration,” she says. “We’re all able to throw around ideas, and it creates a collegial environment.”

But noise sometimes becomes an issue. Unwanted sound can be distracting and even “debilitating for a lot of people,” she says.

That is why the team has set ground rules for how to work optimally in the open office environment. For example, “There’s no yelling across the room. If you’re engaged in friendly topical banter with a colleague, you must be mindful [to keep it down] if someone else is on the phone. If your discussion is going to be long, you need to move to the conference room,” she says.

The ground rules are “a regular point of conversation,” she says. “We frame it around strengthening the team overall and codifying our best practices.”

Kaitlin has also found meditation helps. “My boss encourages all of us to each take 20 minutes at some point during our workday to close our eyes and sit in silence,” she says. “It’s an exercise in training your brain to tune out background noise. I find it very helpful for quieting my mind.”

For now, Kaitlin has made peace with noise and distraction. But she says she “absolutely would ask to move desks” if she thought it would help her work better. “I feel strongly that your job is your livelihood, and you have to be given the tools you need to be productive and succeed.”