Illustration of workers in an open office by Skinkeape
Illustration by Skinkeape

Work Culture

How can we stay focused in an era of open offices?


Published on July 25, 2019

Where do you do your best work?

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Over the past year, I’ve been fascinated by the debates about open office layouts, and equally intrigued by the tips for staying mindful amid a deluge of distractions. Managers tell us we need to collaborate. Professors tell us we need to find focus. How do we balance the need for both? 

The answer may not be as easy as bringing back the cubicle. Even an office with a door wouldn’t be an oasis from virtual interruptions. Now that new tech tools have made us endlessly accessible, the way we feel about communicating with co-workers has changed. 

Texting made phone calls feel intrusive. Chat apps made email feel more like a chore. Turning off notifications makes it easier to dodge distractions—but is it really helping us get into a flow state, or is it just helping us create ever-more-isolated silos? 

Jennifer Brook has been interviewing people around the world as a Staff Researcher at Dropbox. In her conversations with knowledge workers of all kinds, she learned how they tend to toggle between two work environments. 

"There was this interesting pattern where people were saying ‘I enjoy being in the office, but I’m unable to work on things that require focus.’”—Jennifer Brook

“We saw a lot of people express this idea that the optimal time in office is two to three days a week and the optimal time to work from home was two to three days a week,” says Brook. “So there was this interesting pattern where people were saying ‘I really do enjoy being in the office, but I’m unable to work on things that require focus.’”

And research shows the distractions in open offices are often to blame. One reason is that when people in your office are talking, they're often talking about things that you're interested in hearing. As author David Barkus puts it in Harvard Business Review:

“The quiet chatter of colleagues and the gentle thrum of the HVAC should help us focus. The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus.”

To prevent these interruptions, people use external signaling—such as headphones—so they can do the heads-down work at their desk. But this causes frustration when co-workers want to interact. Consequently, team managers often play a gatekeeping role.

“They maintain a boundary around their team so that they can focus. They are the organizational interface, providing a layer of protection and support for the people working in their teams,” says Brook. “In that way, it can reframe the conversation about silos into one about boundaries. Teams and groups within organizations, particularly large ones, need boundaries. But then they also need people who can support information and requests in ways that are mutually beneficial and serve both their team and the organization.”

"There was this sort of serendipity built into the architecture of the space."

The question is: How do you create flexible boundaries without disrupting flow? 

Many point to the way Bell Labs designed a space to promote a cross-pollination of ideas. “The research scientists had their own labs and their own rooms and offices," says Brook. "But they couldn't go anywhere else in the building without engaging in a very long walk in this hallway in which they would inevitably meet other scientists, other researchers along the way and bump into them. There was this sort of serendipity built into the architecture of the space.”

It allowed for the kind of “coactive vicarious learning” that helps people apply what they learned, and improves the way knowledge is shared across the organization. 

“How can an organization support people in teams to both have boundaries for the sake of protecting their focus and to allow some permeability,” asks Brook. “For ideas to generate, for people to work on things that maybe aren't sanctioned, to find things that they're interested in, other people or groups to engage with?” 

Workers don’t have to wait for their manager or a gatekeeper to step in or their company to make cultural changes. Brook says there are various strategies individuals and teams can experiment with to protect their focus while remaining open to collaboration.

Brook started to notice that other people in the organization were making their calendars private.

“Many of the conversations from the research we did last summer have had a strong influence on how I've organized my life and work in the past year,” Brook says. “One way I've chosen to do that is my calendar. I outsource the boundary setting to my calendar because it’s my interface to the organization.”

“What I've tried to do is to have three days a week where I discourage people from putting time on my calendar and two days a week where I encourage it. For some reason, this method of three days heads down, two days engaged, has worked shockingly well.”

Brook started to notice that other people in the organization were making their calendars private, and that inspired her to do the same in the name of taking control of her schedule.

“It's like having these blocks of time that I can then fill in with the sort of hours of labor I need to put into the kind of work that I'm doing,” Brook explains. “It's that idea of the permeable boundary, right? I want anyone in the organization to feel like they can have a conversation with me or put time on my calendar.”

Brook says the simple calendar adjustment has had an impact on how others approach her regarding meetings. “If someone doesn't know me, they'll often reach out to ask permission and set context. It's a more respectful interaction. If you have a nice garden and you have a fence around it, people aren't just taking the tomatoes. They might ask you first before they do it.”

Once you’ve agreed to take on the meeting, though, there’s another important decision to make: how much of your day should you devote to it? 

"Our calendars have decided that the hour is a default unit of time,” says Brook. “I believe the defaults within the products funnel our time and attention in specific ways. That hour as a default meeting unit is, I think, absurd. Any hour of time that I'm spending in conversation with another person requires about an hour to prepare, then an hour to process. So a one-hour meeting often represents three to four hours of labor.” 

As a result, we wind up with less and less time to do the work we need to do on our own. So how do we make room for that—on our calendars and in our offices? 

Open offices aren’t the collaborative utopia employers hoped they would be, but they seem to be our reality for foreseeable future. Until we enter a new office design paradigm, here’s what workers can do: Hone your skills for staying focused and improvise ways to protect your time. Because even if you can’t control your environment, you can take control of your boundaries.