Handling Distractions in an Open-Air or Cubicle Environment

It’s a tough life in open floor plan offices or cubicle environments.

The noise level alone is enough to drive some people insane… and then you have to take into account the common offenders:

  • Loud talkers
  • Sniffers – people who refuse to just go use a tissue and sniff all day
  • Other phones ringing
  • Irritating distractions
  • People who feel as though they have to say something just because they are walking past
  • Smells – this has an entire litany of offenses from scented candles to fragrant foods and bathroom adjacent desks

My professional teeth were cut in a cubicle environment: a newsroom.

Let me tell you- some of the noise was just unbearable.

Newsrooms have “squawk boxes” with network news and alerts pouring over them, you have people shouting across the room, competing televisions and radio broadcasts playing from all directions… it’s maddening.

That type of environment allowed me to develop the natural ability to block out some distractions, but let’s face it… nobody can block everything out.

Last week I gave seven stellar tips for reducing and limiting distractions, so definitely check that out first.

Now we’re talking about specifically open plans with less privacy than individual room office environments.

One of the most persistent distractions I’ve experienced is the classic difficult coworker; this topic was addressed in another recent post that may serve you well.

The first line of defense in eliminating distractions is to know your priorities.

For years I’ve let the people I’ve managed know one of my cardinal rules: never say “that’s not my job.”

There are times when all hands on deck are required and there’s no room for egos.

That said, we all have jobs to do and need to understand where our primary duties begin and end.

Understanding your priorities (which include everything for which your employer will hold you accountable) is paramount in keeping your focus.

After you get that under control, here are some ways you can further limit your distractions:

  1. Turn off instant messaging if it is not required in your workplace.

    It’s distracting and usually “need to know” messages are not sent over IM.
    It has benefits but it can be a nuisance, too.
    Only use IM when you need to be communicating in that moment, and then otherwise shut it down.
    Update your status to “offline” so folks know you’re not monitoring it, and if you can customize your status then make it a strong one.
    The stronger your messaging, the less likely you are to be interrupted.
    Every time you receive a message it stops you from working on your own stuff.
    Even a quick distraction is still a distraction, and science tells us after your distraction has concluded it still takes you at least seven minutes to become reinvested in whatever you were doing in the first place.
    Distractions waste tons of time.

  2. Book a meeting room when you need to concentrate.

    Most open offices and cubicle environments have private workspaces or conference rooms.
    Use them.
    You’ll get more done in less time and you’ll confuse the heck out of people who otherwise would be popping by to say unnecessary things to you because they won’t have a clue where you are.
    Tell your boss, though – you don’t want to go ticking him/her off.

  3. Schedule your breaks & use them for rejuvenation.

    If the break room is going to be full of people talking about work and you’re actually taking a break, then that’s not the room for you.
    Find other ways to rejuvenate.
    Take a walk, find a private work space and lie down for a minute (…as long as you won’t fall asleep – if that is a danger DO. NOT. LIE. DOWN. Sleeping on the job is usually a terminable offense on the first go.) or do what I used to do in a (highly annoying and emotionally toxic) shared office: climb stairs.
    Our offices were on the first floor of a 3-story building.
    I racked up my step count and floor climbing count on my Fitbit when the weather was bad because I would just go up and down, up and down…
    Use your breaks to relax and give your brain a re-set.
    Leave your phone behind.
    I tell all of my clients to change 3 things about themselves when they’re on breaks: Their posture (if you’re sitting then stand up, etc.), their heart rate (change your level of physical activity) and their environment (leave where you are and go somewhere else).

  4. Relocate.

    When you can/if you can, work remotely as often as possible.
    For some folks that is not an option and I totally get that (and sympathize – I’ve been there).
    Some of the worst things to have within close proximity of your workplace are the bathroom (been there… ick, and pee-yew!), the microwave (again… ick, and pee-yew!), high-traffic entrance, rude co-workers, vending machines, break area, and the office coffee maker.
    I have had all of these happen to me at one time or another other than the vending machines; I don’t know how I escaped that one, but I did.
    Anyway – if your neighbor is any of those things, request a transfer.
    Explain to your boss that your productivity is down because of high distraction and be armed with a list of solutions including “is there another work station I could use?”

  5. Be resourceful.

    Use whatever you can use to block your view, discourage interruptions, or encourage others to allow you to focus.
    At one point in a short-walled cubicle environment, my across-the-wall neighbor was a real chatterbox.
    Having zero success asking her to pipe down, I decided to use other tools.
    I created a taller wall.
    Of course, no one else knew why I did this (or maybe they did know, but no one let on that they knew) but that’s the real reason.
    If the chatterbox is reading this – she totally knows who she is, and I hope she learns to be quiet!
    Anyway, the way I “constructed a taller wall” was by making the case for a pegboard/whiteboard in my space.
    Initially, my boss said “It won’t be able to stand up… it will keep falling.”
    But I assured him that I am one of the most creative and resourceful people he’ll ever meet and to just “trust me.”
    So he shrugged and waved me off and said “Whatever, but the first time it falls, it’s gone.”
    I agreed and got the largest board I could find that I believed I could balance between the tiny wall and the stack of giant books I planned to bring from home.
    It worked.
    When a friendly face was no longer within eyesight over our tiny cubicle divider, the chatterbox turned in the opposite direction and started bothering a different office mate.
    The moral of this story is that sometimes you need to get creative in order to get the job done.
    Look for solutions; I promise they exist if you allow yourself to get creative.

I no longer have an office environment with other people constantly distracting me; I have a home office.

While that may sound quiet and peaceful to you – trust me – it has downsides as well.

Ironically, as I composed this very blog about limiting distractions I was interrupted three times by children and once by a dog.

How did I respond?

The first two times with the kiddos I simply said, “I need a few minutes to finish this and then we can play a game.”

Since that didn’t work, the third time I said, “Do you find it at all ironic that I’m writing a blog about limiting distractions and you will not respect my request to stop distracting me?”

They went away and have not (yet) returned.

I put the dog out.

There’s always a way to create an environment more conducive for your work… you just have to insist on it.

This is no small task and I didn’t figure it out in a day or alone. You have help – schedule a complimentary consultation and I (or one of GILD’s other experienced coaches) will help you work through some troubleshooting options to make your life a more productive place.

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