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This post was updated on September 5, 2023

There’s no doubt that open office floor plans require a much lower investment in real estate than a traditional office space. And that’s an important consideration for companies. But there is ample research showing that open offices are devastating to employee productivity. Just a sample…

 If you lead a team in an open office floor plan, you might now think your productivity is doomed. But the good news is, there are actions you can take that can go a long way to boost your ability, and the ability of your team members, to accomplish your most significant results.


1. Turn Corners Into Private Spaces

A corner is turned into a private area in an open office by using a cubicle wall as a separator, two chairs and a floor lamp

Employees require different work environments for different tasks. Taking down all the walls prevents quiet deliberation and undistracted reflection. 

Private spaces or small-group areas don’t necessarily require more square footage. Either can be created in any area or corner by using screens, bookcases, or modular walls.

By creating private areas, employees can utilize these spaces when they need a distraction-free environment. This is one of the more important ways that companies can promote workers’ productivity. 


2. Assign Spots in An Open Office

Workers have assigned seats in open floor plan office

“Hot desks” often go hand-in-hand with open office floor plans, especially now that many companies have moved to a hybrid work model. With “hot desks,” workers will grab whatever seat is available each day that they report to the office.

However, according to Art Markman, a social psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, workers who lack their own space are constantly distracted just by having to think about their workspace every day. 

Because they can never work on “auto-pilot,” they’re less efficient. For example, instead of reaching for a pen in the “regular” place, they must disrupt their work—and their train of thought—to look for a pen when needed.

Giving workers in an open office floor plan some control over their environment can help to counteract their distraction. 


3. Give Workers Control Over Their Assigned Space

Wood storage bins

An open office takes away control, privacy, and well-being. But studies show that workers are more satisfied and actually happier at work when they have some control over their workspace. 

Some ways to achieve this are fairly simple. First, you might give workers some choice of office decor, lighting, and temperature. Second, you can provide some private storage areas for supplies and personal items. 


4. Extend Your Open Office Floor Plan to the Great Outdoors

A woman sits at an outdoor workspace and types on her laptop

Another strategy to help workers be more productive in an open office setting is to provide outdoor space, if possible, where employees can benefit from fresh air and peace. 

Weather permitting, a quiet outdoor workspace can be an escape from the open-office noise, so employees can focus better on tasks that need their complete attention. 

So if you have outdoor space, consider utilizing it to create the extra space you may need. Of course, this may not be an option in a high-rise office building in the middle of a busy city.


5. Or, Bring the Outdoors In

Green plants bring the outdoors inside an open office

Biophilia refers to the innate human love for nature. As our reliance on technology increases, studies show that our connection to nature—and the physiological benefits the outdoors provides—is also on the decline.

So if using outdoor space is not an option for you, look for ways to “bring the outdoors in.” Make good use of the natural light from windows. 

Even if your office doesn’t look out at a natural, serene landscape, you can implement other techniques in your design plan. 

For example, use full-spectrum light bulbs. Bring in potted plants. Hang pictures of nature scenes on walls. In addition, remember that plants and soft furniture aid in muffling sounds, whereas hard surfaces amplify them.


6. Exercise Helps

A man walks on treadmill at standup desk in office

Exercise reduces stress. Consider standing and treadmill desks as options for workers. 

There is no dispute among experts that sitting for too long is harmful to your health. Also undisputed are the positive effects of activity on brainpower and overall wellness.

If you don’t provide opportunities for physical activity, at least encourage people to get up from their desks to take breaks throughout the day.


7. Use “Do Not Disturb” Signs and Signals 

A megaphone with the words "Do Not Disturb"

Often, interruptions by co-workers become a major distraction for employees doing focused work. When workers lose focus, it often takes more time than they realize to get back on track. Distractions also cost your company big money in lost productivity.

In an open office, where there are no doors to close, encourage workers to use “Do Not Disturb” signs on their desks. There are many such signs to choose from online. Some are even quite amusing. (Download funny, free Do Not Disturb signs.)

Workers can also use headphones when they’re engaged in focused work and need to avoid interruptions. Co-workers will learn to consider headphones as a “Do Not Disturb” signal.

Just be sure your employees know that they need to remove their “Do Not Disturb” signs and signals when they are open to being approached; otherwise, the signs and signals lose their meaning.


8. Offer Options for Background Noise

A worker wears headphones while in front of her laptop

It may also be helpful to allow some employee control over background noise, such as music. Studies show that listening to music with words is distracting. Instrumental music, binaural beats, or nature sounds are better for productivity.

Incorporating white noise can make an open office seem quieter. A calming background sound will make the environment seem less chaotic. After researchers looked at the impact of white (and pink and red!) noise on employee productivity, they concluded:

“…certain noise can enhance environmental comfort. It is feasible, in the future, to use knowledge of colour noises to improve productivity in a workplace with a healthy environment.”

Using white noise to mask office disturbances can help employees feel more in control of the work environment.


9. Provide Attention Management Training

We all get the same 24 hours in a day. Learning how to manage our attention can save hours of work, and give us more leisure time. 

Time management training had its day, but in our digital age, a more flexible approach to productivity is required. After all, disruptions in an open office floor plan don’t only come from other workers, but they also come from constant pings and dings of our technology.

Attention management training can give you and your team the skills you need to control your technology, minimize disruptions from others, increase focus, and get back in the driver’s seat of your work and your life.


10. Lead by Example

A leader and her direct report talk in an open office

Often, leaders overlook the power of leading by example. Encourage employees to implement the tips above by doing so yourself. 

You might decorate your own space, bring in your own desk lighting, put a white noise machine on your desk, and use a “Do Not Disturb” sign.  


Make Your Open Office More Conducive to Employee Productivity


In an office with an open floor plan, there is obviously less privacy. And less privacy for workers often means less creativity. 

By mitigating the drawbacks of open office space, and creating spaces for workers to engage in more focused tasks, your company will reap benefits. By using these strategies, you’ll not only save money on an open office space, but you’ll also promote employee productivity.  


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