Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How to Stay Focused in an Open Office

There are a lot of complaints these days about open concept offices.
Workers complain there are too many distractions, they’re so loud you cannot hear yourself think and everyone is in everyone else’s business.
But organizations like the idea of workers being close enough to one another to collaborate easily or come together for quick brainstorming.
I’ve been working in open concept offices since the beginning of my career decades ago. Of course, then they were just called newsrooms. You often were packed so tightly into a space you could literally reach out and touch three other people. The police scanner was blasted out of the overhead sound system so that no one missed an important development. In addition, editors were known to throw objects (tennis balls, pens) at reporters across the room if they couldn’t get their attention by yelling at them.
People were on the phone all the time, and when they weren’t on the phone, they were clacking away on computers.
Noise? It was unbelievable. And I loved it.
That’s not to say that it was always easy to get work done. Sometimes I’d be deep in thought writing a story and the fire department scanner would start screaming with alarms as firefighters rushed to a fire. Or, a frustrated reporter would curse loudly and throw a phone after having difficulty with a source on the other end.
As I said, it wasn’t always easy but I didn’t know any other way of working.
Now, of course, many people face the same situation and find they’re frustrated and annoyed by such working conditions.
So, I’d like to share some tips on how to make such a workspace not only bearable, but something you might come to enjoy. Here are some things to think about:
  • Be honest. Here is the thing about journalists: They say what’s on their minds. They’re always on deadline, and don’t have time to dither around when there is an issue. So, when the reporter next to me brought in Chinese garlic chicken and ate it at his desk, I told him, “That smells terrible. Can you not eat that kind of thing in here anymore? I can’t write when my eyes are watering.” I didn’t complain when he ate a ham sandwich, so he knew I wasn’t being a prima donna – the garlic chicken was the problem, not him.
  • Stop blaming other people for distractions. You’re never going to get anything done if your head is doing a Linda Blair spin every time someone walks by your chair. If you’re constantly being distracted, sometimes it’s because you’re looking for that excuse. When you’re focused on your work, noise isn’t going to bother you because you’re in the zone. The more you practice it, the better you’ll get at it, I promise. I have been able to write an 800-word story in 25 minutes with two reporters passing a football back and forth over my head.
  • Find your hideout. As much as I loved the energy of a newsroom, I also knew there were times when I needed to quiet myself so that I could think of a creative way to write a story or interview a difficult source. I knew the quiet areas I could go within a newspaper building that I was within reach of my bosses, but also could find some quiet space. Conference rooms may work, but you’re also likely to be interrupted. I found that stairwells, a reception area outside human resources and even the office of someone on vacation worked well (always get permission first.)
  • Learn to laugh it off. We had a man in our newsroom who was losing his hearing, so when he talked on the phone you could hear him in the next county. But you know what? He was one of us. He was doing his job, so we all just sort of learned to laugh and forget about it. People talk too loudly on the phone. You probably talk too loudly on the phone and everyone is sick of hearing you talk to your mother or your boyfriend or your bookie. So the next time you get annoyed that someone is talking too loud, put on your headphones or learn to ignore it. Better yet, learn to laugh about our human foibles and go back to work – or intercept the football sailing over your head.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You should try crafting systems software in an open office. Especially with focal epilepsy that is set off by unexpected sounds. When they show me the den of distractions I tell them that if they can't provide me an office with a door I'll be working from home. If they object I remind them of the Americans with Disabilities Act. So far I haven't had to sue, though Yahoo is tempting.