How to make the best of your new open office

Kathleen Escarcha, staff writerKathleen Escarcha, staff writer

Around 70% of U.S. offices now use an open office floor plan, and they're growing more popular in higher ed, too.

Colleges and universities are switching to cubicles and open offices to enhance collaboration and improve communication within and among teams, writes Ann Forman Lippens for EAB's Facilities Forum.

But when we remove physical barriers between employees, the office can become a distracting place to focus, Steven Melendez writes for the Wall Street Journal.

In fact, employees working in an open office get interrupted more frequently than those working behind shut doors, according to research from Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine.

We asked our colleagues at EAB about their experience working in an open office. Here are their strategies for staying focused and engaged—even in a cubicle.

1: Block out the noise

Big headphones are an essential for any open workspace, says Kate Sheka, a senior marketing manager at EAB. A good pair of headphones can help you block out ambient noise, Melendez writes. If you have trouble concentrating with music, Melendez recommends listening to nature sounds or white noise.

2: Get a plant

Having a plant nearby may help "soften echoing sounds and boost air quality," Melendez writes. The natural elements may also improve your concentration. Employees who worked in offices with leafy green plans were 15% more productive than those working in offices without plants, according to 2014 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Also see: How one university made open offices work for them

3: Try out different spaces

Open offices often have different spaces for different tasks—like a phone booth for private calls or meeting rooms, Melendez writes. In my experience, moving between different spaces improves my focus and breaks up my workday.

Working in a different space—whether landscaped external areas or internal areas of the office—encourages creativity, says John Medina, a professor at the University of Washington who has advised architects on incorporating neuroscience into their projects.

Also see: Minimize the need for future changes with flexible, space-efficient layouts

4: Take a break  

Take advantage of an open office plan by giving yourself 15-minute breaks to chat with your nearby coworkers, recommends Aly Seidel, a web editor at EAB. Taking a timed break can help put limits on noise and distractions, and it may also help you feel more focused and refreshed for your next task.

5: Find privacy

Editing a sensitive document in an open office plan can feel unnerving, Melendez writes. To shield your screen from unwanted eyes, Melendez recommends sticking a privacy filter on your computer screen. If your task requires complete privacy, Rachel Brink, a web manager at EAB, suggests ducking into a private call room (Melendez, Wall Street Journal, 1/18).

Read more: The future of faculty offices—and how you can adapt

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