Turns Out Those Trendy Open Offices Got It All Wrong

Let's bring back walls and doors, shall we?

Why That Open Office May Be Doing More Than Just Hurting Your EarsiStock/SolStock

In the television drama, Mad Men, the infamous Don Draper brainstorms ideas for selling cigarettes and pantyhose to 1960’s consumers, all from the privacy of his corner office. If he was working on Madison Avenue today, besides no longer having the prerequisite female secretary sitting right outside the office door to fetch him coffee, Don Draper might no longer have an office door, wall, or even a desk. In fact today he might have trouble creating those ad slogans in the midst of water cooler chatter, loud phone calls, and other distractions of today’s open office floor environment.

A January 2017 article from the BBC shows that we’re 15 percent less productive and have immense trouble concentrating in open working spaces. A 2013 survey by Gensler, a global design firm, found that more than two-thirds of U.S. employees are unhappy with noise levels at work, and 53 percent say other people disturb them when they try to focus.

Open floor plans are not exactly new. The idea originated in 1950s Hamburg, Germany, in an attempt “to facilitate communication and idea flow,” according to the New Yorker. Although Don Draper’s 1960s America might not have caught on to the idea, soon technological advancements and economic changes led businesses to embrace the concept of having employees work in closer proximity to each other—to not only fuel camaraderie, creativity, and collaboration, but to save money.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite live up to its promise, as many of us struggle to concentrate in an open office layout. According to the BBC, our brains are wired to handle only so much information at one time. The sensory overload that an open office can create divides our focus, forcing our thoughts to compete with cell phones ringing, voices carrying on overhead, and the visual distraction of people walking by. It’s multitasking by default, rather than by choice. And we’ve all heard that multitasking can actually be counterproductive.

If your office has an open plan and you find it challenging to focus, try these DIY solutions to block out the distractions and get more done.

  • Wear noise canceling headphones—or old fashioned ear plugs—to create an oasis of peace and quiet.
  • Listen to classical, ambient, or slow jazz music. Avoid tunes with lyrics, as the words may distract your brain as much as your co-worker’s phone call. Or download birdsong as it occurs in nature, which is calming to the brain.
  • Use a white noise machine or download a white noise app like Thunderspace. Sounds can vary from the monotonous drone of an airplane to the rolling waves of the ocean. Or try pink noise instead. The lower frequencies are louder and have more power than the higher frequencies of white noise.
  • Turn on a small fan. The whirring sound will not only mask noise, but keep you cool if your co-worker is making your blood boil.
  • The soothing sound from a mini water fountain can help drown out noise and relieve stress associated with work burnout.
  • Consider practicing mindful meditation using deep breathing techniques. Try these mini meditations to start.
  • If possible, position a plant strategically to muffle sounds and/or views. The larger the better.

Try these other fixes for enhancing your concentration at work, whether you work in an open office plan or not.

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