How To Stay Focused In An Open Office

Open offices are to distraction as the internet is to cat videos. So how do we stay focused and get things done? A collection of some of the best advice we’ve heard so far.

How To Stay Focused In An Open Office
[Image: Flickr user Sharon Mollerus]

In the late 18th century, the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham had a dystopian vision: he thought of a panopticon, a circular prison in which the inmates could always be in view of guards, robbing them of privacy, and with that, human decency. A few centuries later, his surveillance state found fruition: we all started working in open offices.


Thus began the great open office debate: some people abhor them, some find ways to love them. But for those of us who have no choice but to work in them, we need to adapt.

So we tapped into the brain trust of Fast Company readers to find out how you find focus in our new world of distraction.

1. Embrace the noise.

“Nobody can understand two people talking at the same time,” says Julian Treasure, chairman of the Sound Agency.

So since you can’t beat the noise, you might as well embrace it.

Fast Company reader Krystian Szastok reports that at his office at Jellyfish in the UK there’s a constantly running office playlist. Having a shared office soundtrack creates enough noise that one-to-one conversations can have an air of privacy even within an open space.

2. Match the level of focus needed with the right music.

The most-suggested open office-adaptation was the right set of headphones and accompanying music. Depending on his mood, Szastok opts for whale songs, which help when there’s no immediate deadline, or death metal, which powers him up in times of crisis.


3. Send a clear “do not disturb” message.

Headphones aren’t even necessarily about the music: multiple readers told us they sent a “do not disturb” signal to everybody else on the floor. Another option if you’re in a casual environment: wear a sweatshirt and pull the hood up, it’s not a closed office door, but people should get the message all the same.

4. Move around.

If you can’t deal with your colleagues, head elsewhere.

“The best part–and I’m sure this was intentional on my company’s behalf–of our new office space is the common area,” says reader Kley Sippel. “It lets me shift into a new space for a bit, which helps me hunker down and focus through a task.”

To get more done, try matching the space to the type of task.

5. Get mindful.

Don’t worry so much about the distractions around you; take a moment to navigate the distractions buzzing around inside your head, says reader Pino Bethencourt, “Focus by staying grounded: breathe deep, connect to body sensations that signify stress.” Taking breaks in nature helps too she says.

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.