a trick to stay focused in an open office, why all breaks don’t recharge you equally, and more

Over at the Fast Track by QuickBase today, I take a look at several big work-related stories in the news right now: a trick to stay focused in an open office, why all breaks don’t recharge you equally, and more. You can read it here.

{ 89 comments… read them below }

  1. Mike C.

    The standing meeting (or otherwise uncomfortable situation) can backfire if the leaders have greater stamina than you do.

    I remember a time where I had an hour long standing meeting in the unheated, incomplete structure that was outside, in the winter. Sure we got stuff done and it made a point, but it was cold and the wind would rock the room ever so slightly!

    Half the time some jackass would lock one of the large doors open. >.<

    1. Anonymous Educator

      Yeah, I had that happen before, too—a manager who kept talking about standing meetings and how short they were supposed to be, but the manager was a competitive athlete, so our standing meetings sometimes ended up being very long. Better to just put a time limit on it than to stand.

    2. Sami

      I hope managers would be cognizant that having standing meetings aren’t doable for some people. I have two very painful chronic diseases so there’s no way I’d be able to attend- standing up at least.

      1. Kix

        Amen to that. Standing/walking meetings aren’t possible for me, either, which means I’m looked upon as not being participatory.

      2. NJ Anon

        I have the opposite issue. I recently had back surgery and sitting for too long makes my back cranky. So if (and when) our staff meetings go super long, I get up and stand. The reason they are 2.5 hours in a 15 employee company? That’s a whole ‘nother issue!

    3. why yes, another fed

      one of my profs was pretty famous for scheduling his grad student one-on-ones during gym time. So you’d have to hop on the next treadmill or play racquetball or whatever was his current regimen in order to talk about your thesis progress and no option for demos, diagrams etc. Still not sure how one discusses complex computational algorithms in that environment…

      1. Lemon Zinger

        Hahaha I love this! I often ran into professors at the gym when I was in college. So awkward, especially when they were in better shape!

  2. Chris

    So much hate for the open office plans on your previous articles. I have to say, the bulk of the feedback we’ve ever gotten on our own open office plan is that it was considered one of the perks of the job, and that the team appreciated the atmosphere it generated. There are specific roles that require a private meeting space, and specific job functions that require solo concentration rather than high levels of integration with the work of others, where this doesn’t hold true, and where they work in offices instead, but by and large, 98% of the team works in an open plan, split up into several areas, and it works very well.

    Our focus within the team is on supporting the needs of the project and the customers. To us, being able to hear problems others are encountering is an opportunity to mentor, or to collaborate on solutions. Those who have a need to focus without distraction are usually quite effective at finding ways to block extraneous input, and we do allow people to work from home or to blend a work at home plan with an in-office plan. We consider communication to be a prime job requirement, and the open plan fits the needs of the team very well, and generates a friendly, supportive environment that is nearly universally welcomed.

    The difference in our success may be, for 30 years this simply been the way the team functions. It’s not new, trendy, or a forced change to encourage ‘something’ that isn’t happening already. When you come for an interview, you walk past the team, and there are no surprises. We have extremely low turnover in general, and compared to the typical company in our industry.

    Your mileage may vary.

    1. Mike C.

      Yeah, mostly because open plan offices are absolutely terrible for the vast majority of people working at a desk. They get “so much hate” because there are so many different ways to get distracted, and they increase exponentially with every person you add to the mix.

    2. the gold digger

      Chris, is everybody, including the execs, on open plan? Part of my resentment and bitterness is from the fact that the execs keep their offices, doors, and windows but the rest of us are supposed to work in the noisy dark.

      1. Cat Steals Keyboard

        This makes me appreciate the fact that I’m in an open plan office but with loads of windows.

    3. Kyrielle

      I think some of it may be that a number of us work in jobs that are best characterized by a need for heads-down concentration, and cubicles or open-plan offices (especially the latter) increase distraction and reduce focus. I love my new job with an office with a door. It’s usually open, but if the area is getting noisy, I can close it and not have to ask anyone to pipe down or stop that very valuable collaboration they’re doing, but also not lose my focus to it.

      I have worked in a cube farm where 3-4 of us were gathered, remotely connected to a client site, troubleshooting a major issue – only to be repeatedly asked to hush our discussion of it into whispers, understandably, because it was distracting someone else who was working solo on an unrelated issue and not able to concentrate. Lack of doors was a major issue (and in fact, I suggested that a small space set aside for ‘support of critical customer issues’ where we could carry the laptop in, call the customer as needed, etc., might help there – but we never did get such a space, at least while I was there).

      It depends on the job being done, and also on the people. I would bet that people who can’t thrive in your environment are self-selecting out. (I was actually pretty relieved not to get an offer from one company I interviewed with in my most recent search – I needed to shift jobs and I really didn’t want to turn anything down, but…open-plan office with dogs. Not the best space for me. Nice folks, interesting work and industry, and I’d have loved that role, in a different office.)

    4. FiveWheels

      People looking at me, hyper focused and very productive, would probably think “Wheels is great, able to totally block out sounds of the office!”

      That’s because my “thinking how to solve s difficult problem” face looks identical to my “I CAN HEAR EVERY WORD OF EIGHT SEPARATE TELEPHONE CONVERSATIONS AND UNLESS I USE ALL MY ENERGY ON REMAINING STILL, I MIGHT BECOME AGGRESSIVE” face.

      1. Mike C.

        Oh man, I just ~*~LOVE IT~*~ when multiple people are on the same phone in meeting, and they have their phones on speaker! That way then I hear someone speak, I also hear it repeated milliseconds later on all the other phones.

        >.<

        1. FiveWheels

          Speaker phone use with the door open would pretty much lead to instant murder where I work, and not just by me!

          But people seem to feel the need to SHOUT FULL VOLUME for no reason whatsoever. I know I have very acute hearing, but I’m not Daredevil, I can’t be the only one this drives wild.

          IF WE’RE ABOUT TO MISS A DEADLINE AND THE CLIENT WILL KILL US, fine, shout. But why are you using FULL VOLUME FOR A FRIENDLY CHAT WITH A CLIENT STOP LAUGHING SO LOUD PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE

          1. Shishimai

            Oh gosh yes this.

            I think my concentration face adequately hides my internal mantra of “shut up shut up shut up shut up.” I hope.

        2. Ife

          Yes, or hearing person 1 contribute something one row over to my left, then person 2 respond behind me, silence, later, person 3 says something a row to the right. It is very disorienting and I feel compelled to figure out if they are all on the same call!

    5. Elizabeth West

      I’m guessing that people who don’t function well in that environment will eventually self-select out, either at the hiring stage or later. So you’ll probably end up with more folks who do.

      1. lex

        I think that there is a lot to this, I know that I personally would remove myself from consideration if I discovered that there was an open office plan at the company. Walking in for an interview and seeing open plan might actually cause me to give my regrets and skip out before the interview.

      2. Chris

        You are almost certainly correct. And we do recognize that there are some limitations to adaptability, and place people in areas where it will be consistently quieter, or darker, etc, as needed. But overall the benefits seem to greatly outweigh the negatives.

        1. Unanimously Anonymous

          The biggest “benefits” are the big additions to the executives’ bonus pool when the co. saves a boatload of office-space expense by cramming the staff together like sardines.

    6. pomme de terre

      I’ve worked in two open offices. One was OK, because there were a handful of tiny rooms and unoccupied offices where you could go if you needed some privacy or quiet. My current office is open plan and I generally find it full of interruptions, intentional and unintentional. Almost everyone has (expensive) Bose headphones, which help but don’t really solve the problem.

      1. greta garbonzo

        Even if you can’t hear normal volume, ambient noise, you’d still be able to see people talking (out loud or to themselves)? I imagine the peripheral, visual stimuli can be every bit as focus-depleting as being able to both see and hear those things.

        I’d definitely need my own space so that I don’t have to look at everyone else or be seen by everyone else. And, given how many times I have to blow my nose or check my eyes in a mirror or stretch, or talk to myself via charades (point at computer screen because of technical difficulties), I can be a visual distraction.

    7. asteramella

      Yeah, that’s a big contrast with my current company.

      There is no legitimate business reason for us to sit in an open-plan office, other than it being cheaper. Collaboration is not a big part of our workflow. 95% of employees are prohibited from working from home, we have 4 conference rooms for ~300 employees (almost always booked solid a week or more in advance), and … all execs have private offices with doors.

      Most employees’ time is divided between phone calls and working on heavily detail-oriented issues, so we’re constantly having to 1) tune out others’ conversations while concentrating on our work or 2) apologetically have a long phone call while people around us try to sift through complex information. Headphones are heavily discouraged because they “make employees look disconnected.”

      While I recognize that there are environments in which an open floor plan is appropriate or even beneficial, this experience has been so awful that I will do everything in my power to avoid working in an open plan ever again. I have requested to work from home, even just one day a week (my role could easily be 50/50 WFH), but alas, the PTB are adamantly against working from home because they consider butt-in-seat time to be the only valid definition of “work.”

  3. Persephone Mulberry

    My last company had a twice-weekly manager’s “stand up” meeting that literally involved standing because there was no table or chairs in the available room. It was scheduled to (and generally did) last no more than 30 minutes. Then they got a conference table and suddenly the 30-minute meeting was routinely lasting an hour and a half to two hours.

  4. Cat Steals Keyboard

    We have an item we put on our desks (novelty money boxes from a campaign) to signal when we’re concentrating and don’t want to be disturbed.

    I have a chronic illness and standing meetings would zap my energy. Ugh. And anyway we need to take notes in ours. We just go off to another room. With biscuits.

    1. FiveWheels

      Ah, I’d quite like a Do Not Disturb item, but I’d want it in place every minute of every day because time when i can be or am being disturbed is pretty much always time I’m not working optimally.

  5. Anonymous Educator

    The way I take a break is to go eat lunch by myself—not at my desk, not with co-workers. I eat by myself outside (weather permitting) and listen to a podcast. It’s very relaxing…

    1. KG, Ph.D.

      I walk around campus with a podcast on headphones! So, so relaxing. The headphones also mean that if I see someone I know, I can get away with just a quick wave, rather than a conversation.

        1. Windchime

          Exactly! People at my office seem to think that headphones signal that I *do* want to be interrupted. Even better if they can slink up behind me while I’m concentrating deeply and can’t hear them because of the headphones — there is nothing more effective than a jab on the shoulder from out of the blue.

    2. Lemon Zinger

      I really need to do this today. I always eat alone, but usually at my desk. You inspired me! I’ll head up to the patio and lunch while I listen to a podcast and enjoy nice views of campus. Thanks for the push!

  6. Lucy Honeychurch

    Hahaha I am doing literally the opposite of that break advice right now–pushed it off till 1 despite wanting it at 12:30, and am sitting in my office reading….whoops!

    1. Anonymous Educator

      I still tend to push off my lunch break as long as possible, because it makes the second “half” of the day shorter than the first “half.”

      1. Alice Ulf

        I’m kind of relieved to see proof that I’m not the only person on the planet with this tendency, ha.

        I was always in trouble for taking my lunch break late at a factory-type job I held in my early college years. I wasn’t savvy enough to realize the breaks were staggered by department for actual Reasons. :P

        1. Not So NewReader

          One place I worked I did not get my first break until hour number 6 of an 8 hour shift. I thought I was going to die or choke someone, I wavered between the two. Finally I went to the bosses. The bosses told everyone, you leave on time and you come back on time. If you cannot leave on time, you forfeit and wait until the last assigned break returns. Seven people taking a half hour lunch was 3.5 hours right in the middle of the day, it only made sense that everyone HAD to leave on time.

      2. the gold digger

        I do that, too! In addition, I like to go to the on-site gym at lunch, but if I go before 1:00, there are other people in there and someone has invariably selected a radio station I cannot stand. I wait until 1 or 1:30 and choose the music I want.

        (Also, our North American HQ is one time zone to the east. If I wait until 1:00 for lunch, that gives me noon my time to meet with the HQ people at 1:00 their time, which dramatically expands meeting opportunities.)(Of course, this approach presumes that nobody I want to meet with wants to go to his gym at 1:00 his time.)

      3. Elizabeth West

        I do that too, when I take a clocked-out lunch (which I don’t usually do here). I can’t eat at 11 am. What is up with that! I don’t even have breakfast until about 9! When we have food trucks, I have to weigh carefully when I want to eat, because if I don’t get down there fast, the good stuff is sometimes gone.

        1. Kyrielle

          *grins* And I hate 11 am meetings because I have to decide whether to have my lunch at 10:30 (!) or starve until the meeting ends…. (But I start my work day by 6:30 am, so my schedule’s a bit odd.)

          1. Elizabeth West

            I eat breakfast at my desk around 9, and I can usually adjust that if I have something going on. The earliest I eat lunch is at 11:45 if I have to cover the desk at 1–unless I’ve had breakfast late, and then I’ll wait until I get back.

            If I started at 6:30, I’d starve if I didn’t have a snack before an 11 am meeting.

            1. sayevet

              I need to eat every 3-5 hours, starting from my first meal of the day. I’ve stopped using the words “breakfast” and “lunch” so that I can focus on eating what and when my body needs, not what fits that generic structure of breakfast/lunch/dinner.

              1. Hotstreak

                Interesting! I also stopped using those terms, but for the opposite reason. Some days I will only eat at 1pm and 4pm, or I might eat at 11am and 3pm. I keep a regular 9-5 schedule, what on earth am I supposed to call those meals!

  7. AMG

    The best configuration of an open floor plan I have seen was when we had pods of 6-8 people. You can collaborate but each sectioned off with its own cube and no walls between the other team members. If you need to concentrate, you can turn around with your back to the conversation and the other people can carry on. Still not sufficient for people who need quiet to work but not a free-for-all either.

  8. AtrociousPink

    I’d tape that red piece of paper to my forehead if it would only stop my boss from sending me an email and then immediately running out to my desk to stand over my shoulder peering at my screen while I read his email….

    1. FiveWheels

      *email arrives *
      Boss: Did you see that email?
      Wheels: Yes.
      Boss: And?
      Wheels: Oh, i haven’t read it.

      It works sometimes, if I can be deadpan enough in projecting an assumption that no sane person would ever consider reading an email. How odd to even be asked!

    2. The Other Dawn

      UGH! I had a former senior manager in my old job who would do the same thing. He would send an email and then run over to my office to tell me he sent and then would wait there until I read it. Dude, you just sent it two seconds ago. Give me a minute! He was also one to print out an email I sent to him that contained a question. He would bring it over, drop it on my desk, and tell me, “I got your email.” And? So, answer the damn thing!

      1. Cat Steals Keyboard

        Because you didn’t know what you emailed him, clearly.

        Maybe he thinks his job is to be a human print queue?

    3. lex

      We have a guy in our office that is notorious for doing this, so much so that we use his last name to describe the action, ie, “Stop Smithing* me!!!” Or, “I’m sorry, I just Smithed* you but can you check your email right now?”

      * Last name changed to protect the guilty.

  9. Squirrel

    Oh standing meetings. Once as an intern I had to stand for an hour while the entire IT staff (40+ people) debated about whether they should keep the windows closed or leave them open. As in the most asinine reason to keep us from doing anything but standing uncomfortably.
    I think two things might help them work better:
    1) No one can learn on anything. No misericordia for you!
    2)Someone *actually moves the meeting forward. *
    Then again I think #2 is the more crucial part; all of the tips listed for shorter meetings are just gimmicks that are an attempt to structurally solve a leadership problem.

  10. Meg

    The “don’t read during breaks” suggestion is an interesting one. I don’t think I could do it! Especially if I happen to be reading a really good book. Nothing makes the back of my brain stop thinking about work like getting transported into another world. However, not reading news articles on my phone / at my desk while eating is probably good advice :)

    1. Lemon Zinger

      I eat lunch at my desk most days, and I tend to read a longform-style article during that time. I LOVE a good story! But Alison is right– I never come away from that feeling relaxed, and I guess it’s because my brain works too much during that time!

    2. Elizabeth West

      I hate reading on my break–just when I get into it, it’s time to go back to work. :P Same with writing, though I used to do that all the time at Exjob. I wrote most of my bank robber book on my lunch break. Because I was used to clocking out and disconnecting/connecting my brain, it worked. If I did that here, barring any interruptions, I’d look up and it would be time to go home.

    3. Alton

      I always feel relaxed by reading, honestly, unless I’m reading about something that upsets me. I find that my lunch break is good for reading because I can immerse myself in it for a short amount of time (I have trouble focusing and like reading in short bursts) and it’s portable. And I don’t really read a ton for my job.

  11. Cordelia Naismith

    I just read the article about breaking into the computer network that’s linked in the “You May Also Like” section, and I was pretty boggled by it. Was there ever an update? Did that OP get found out and/or fired?

  12. Chriama

    Re open plan offices: I started reading AAM before I got my first real job and I never understood the hate. My office is basically a cubicle farm with all the cubicles on the outside of the building (huge windows, everyone gets natural light) and the offices on the inside. We also have a bunch of conference rooms of different sizes, including rooms with a small table and phone designed to seat 1 or 2 people for conference calls and stuff. We also just moved away from desk phones to headsets so the conference calls are a lot less distracting if you choose to take them at your desk. I think my office is awesome and way more collaborative than private offices would be. I think it also helps that the cubes are divided into sort of ‘rooms’ so you’re really only sitting with 5-7 other people and have glass walls that you can write on and that extend to a little past the height of a monitor sitting on your desk. Also, everyone gets a locking drawer and cubby/locker sort of thing. Overall I think it’s an amazing design, super collaborative, and way more space-saving than a bunch of offices would be. Did I mention the giant windows? Basically the entire outside wall is windows. I sit right beside one and my biggest complaint is that it’s really cold in the winter. (I’m thinking of sneaking in a space heater) But the natural light is awesome.

    Tl,dr; open offices can be done right, mine is and is super amazing

    1. Anon for This

      It sounds like you are one of the lucky few whose open office works great for you. :)

      On the flip side: I have migraines that are triggered/exacerbated by bright light; most of the jobs at my company require little regular collaboration; I sit near people whose work has absolutely nothing to do with mine; there are no conference rooms on my floor; all of the executives have offices; nobody seems to have heard of headsets.

      I do think there are industries and jobs where open offices make sense. Unfortunately, when they’re implemented without much thought about employees’ comfort, they generate the hate.

      1. the gold digger

        You have light? What’s that like? :)

        I work in a a building that used to be a factory but was converted to office space. There are windows, but very few. The offices line the outside walls and do not have windows themselves, so if the office doors are closed, there is no natural light. The ceilings are low and the entire atmosphere is grim. The only saving grace is that I work with very considerate, very quiet people.

    2. HRChick

      I think it depends on the job.

      My job can be collaborative but the majority of the time, I really need to focus and concentrate, and it would be difficult with all the movement/noise/lights, etc that I wouldn’t have control over in a cubicle farm. Not to mention interruptions. I have an office and people still walk in like they own it. When I need to buckle down and get something done, I tell my receptionist and I close and lock my door.

      If I can’t do that, I come in on the weekends. But, I don’t want to come in on the weekends!

    3. copy run start

      I worked in a building built in 1970, when they thought throwing a tiny window at the top of a 20-foot wall of cinderblock was a great idea. All the cubes were mushed in the middle.

      It was absurdly noisy because sound bounced off the cinderblock and carried easily across the room. Staff frequently had to meet with each other and take phone calls and there were times I just sat there with my fingers in my ears because the din was so overwhelming. The central aisle of cubes was too hot (no air vents in the center) while the sides froze. The windows served only to blind you during a certain time of day due to the rising and setting of the sun. You couldn’t see anything out of them most of the time because they were filthy. None of the conference rooms or offices had outside windows. On top of it all, they coordinated the walls and carpet to the dull gray of the cubes. It was hell.

      I work in a pod setup now and it is so much more pleasant.

    4. Melissa

      Cube farms aren’t really open office plans, though. I work in a cube farm. I have friends working in open plan offices that are more or less just lines of tables/desks with computers on them and little to no barriers at all. Nothing to absorb sound, nothing to block each others’ view, and for someone like me with detail-oriented work and LOTS of phone calls…nothing but distraction. I couldn’t imagine trying to do my job in that environment and am grateful for my little gray cube. I acknowledge that they work for some people/jobs, though.

      1. Chriama

        If that’s the definition then I agree. I couldn’t function in what was basically an assembly line. And I have seen set-ups that I know wouldn’t work for me. I just wanted to throw in a positive data point because they get so much hate. I think our office is a reflection of how management really thinks about it’s employees. My company is always close to the top of those ‘best workplace’ lists and I think the office set up is a reflection of the management attitude that gets us that reputation.

  13. pomme de terre

    I wonder if a DND sign would work for me. I’d love it if people wouldn’t interrupt me when I’m clearly in the middle of something, but I think it would be social misstep in my office since no one else does it.

    1. Jennifer

      Likewise. Interruptions are a requirement of my job, like it or not, since for most of the day we are “on call” for questions if nothing else.

      I think it’s hilarious that my new officemates are getting snitty about how there’s a bin kept in this room that they don’t want in here, and then people come in “without knocking or saying hi” to dump things in this specific bin. Like one of them just sent an e-mail saying, “I found three other locations that you can put that bin in.” Having come from public service I am just all, “seriously, your problems could be so much worse than people walking in to chuck things in a bin.” Once they end up on call for questions all the time, they shall learn, unfortunately.

  14. Lala

    I wish to god that a “Do Not Disturb” sign worked, but I actually had FOUR in place yesterday (I’m the only one stuck out in the open, and people approach me from multiple directions) while doing a one-hour webinar, and I was still interrupted. So infuriating.

    1. sayevet

      Maybe you need one on a stick that you can hold up in their face without breaking your concentration? If you don’t acknowledge the interruption, it’s easier to remember that they’re being rude (not you).

      If I’m interrupted during a phone call, I just point at my headset and continue the conversation and they eventually walk away. I’ll visit them after my call ends and assure them that I only wear the headset when I’m on the phone, not for fun, and that now I can talk.

  15. chocoholic

    My husband’s office has an open floor plan for their design studio area (architecture firm). It can get noisy in there, but they have a culture that allows people to wear headphones while at their desk. One thing that has been really helpful for him is to put a white noise app on his phone and listen to that when he needs to concentrate but does not want to listen to music.

  16. Dynamic Beige

    Working in the meetings and conferences industry… it’s pretty much a given that we’re going to go over. It’s an epidemic, everyone complains about it, but no one seems to want to really *do* anything about it. A stager told me years ago that he did a show for the Canadian Auto Workers union and they had the clock onstage facing the audience. Every single speaker ended on time, whether they wanted to or not because the whole audience could see the time ticking down. Often, there is a speaker timer, but it faces the presenter. It even changes colour from green through yellow to red as the time counts down but most speakers just ignore it.

  17. A Little Teapot

    I do not care for open offices. It’s hard to concentrate, especially when the walls are bare and sound bounces off of them. Also, since people talk louder when they are on calls, and when you multiply the number of people in calls at any given time… Cacophony!

    Also, an aside: I applied Alison’s advice when I revised my resume and wrote a cover letter. They called me two days after I submitted it to schedule an interview! This site (including the awesome, thoughtful comments) is such a wonderful source of wisdom.

  18. Vicki

    Marissa Mayer is not a good poster child for meetings. While it may be true that she holds very short meetings – sometimes as short as five or 10 minutes each, she’s also responsible for instituting a mandatory all hands on Friday afternoons, specifically to ensure that no one left early to beat the traffic.

  19. Maria

    I’ve always worked in jobs that involve sensitive, timed access to IP, so I can’t fathom working in an open office. I’m used to cubicles with privacy filters on the monitors and whispered phone conversations. I couldn’t get anything done if my office looked like a news room from the 60s.

  20. OhBehave

    I was recently in a meeting to plan future Teapot designs. We had several people on Skype. This meeting was collaborative, with everyone throwing out ideas as well as discussing ideas that many submitted prior to the meeting. The people on Skype rarely spoke up. They couldn’t because it was such a free-for-all for 2 hours. Yes, TWO HOURS! I am going to suggest that in the future, these people not be invited. They wasted 2 hours of their day with nothing to show. They couldn’t hear what anyone was saying because so many were talking at once and things were moving so quickly. In the end we agreed on many new designs but I felt a bit bad for the Skype employees.

  21. Pucci Mane

    One of the reasons I left my last job was the imminent move to an open plan office. The mix of personalities at my old job was particularly grating (not their fault, they weren’t bad people, just highly annoying to one specific person – me) and the thought of having them all even more up in my face was too much to bear. Now I am sequestered in my own office, a nice little dingy cave where people come to interact with me one at a time, and I’m quite happy.

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