Surviving the open office trap

January 27, 2015, 8:19 PM UTC
Vodafone Call Centre Stoke
Vodafone Call Centre Stoke, Overall Interior View, Stoke On Trent, United Kingdom, Architect2009, . (Photo by View Pictures/UIG via Getty Images)
Photograph by View Pictures UIG via Getty Images

More and more companies are embracing open office layouts with the goal to improve communication, increase collaboration and cut back on overhead by packing more workers into less space.

This might sound well and good, but every change has unintended consequences. Workers in open-floor plans are more exposed to interruptions by people I call ‘Time Bandits’ — those who unwittingly interrupt you and steal your time. These people make it almost impossible for you to focus at work, as they constantly bombard you with conversation and other activity.

Ironically enough, open-floor plans might actually cause a drop in productivity. In self-assessments taken by executives at my management consulting firm, Cohen Brown Management Group, office workers at all levels reported losing three to five hours of productive time every day due to unwanted, unneeded and unproductive interruptions. What’s more, 93% said “yes” when asked if they are “often interrupted” at work. And of this group, 68% said those interruptions came from within the company.

When we asked employees how their inability to avoid interruptions affected them, the majority, 80%, said it created more stress for them, while 66% said it reduced their productivity. Sixty percent said it diminished their job satisfaction, while 41% reported they made more mistakes.

The fix for all these issues isn’t a physical one. It’s a matter of changing behavior, so here’s three ways to survive the pitfalls of an open office.

Know the cost. You may not know how costly interruptions are to your workflow, but U.S. companies waste $588 billion annually because of interruptions, according to Basex Research. You may fear telling your colleagues that interruptions are inconvenient for you, or think interruptions are not detrimental to your work; that you should be flexible enough to tolerate your colleague’s changing priorities. However, it’s critical that you realize how much havoc interruptions cause you. At the end of a normal day,calculate how many interruptions you had and how much time those interruptions ‘stole’ from your day. You’ll likely be astonished (and horrified) by how much time you lost.

Communicate. The next step is to stare down the fear of letting your colleagues know they’re interrupting your work. This isn’t always easy to do. After all, these are your colleagues and perhaps even your boss – all people you least want to offend. You don’t want to curtly dismiss them, so the trick is to explain how your ability to work without interruption will also benefit them. That means finding the right words and tone, practicing their delivery, anticipating how they might object and prepare responses to any objections.

Carve out alone time. I call this Time Locking, or finding time to work free of interruptions. If it involves writing a long report you might negotiate a half day behind closed doors. Maybe you only need an hour of answering no phones while you focus on some budget calculations. You can also ask a colleague to cover for you while you’re gone and agree to do the same for them at another time.

Edward G. Brown is the author of The Time Bandit Solution: Recovering Stolen Time You Never Knew You Had and co-founder of Cohen Brown Management Group.

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