How I Learned to be More Effective in an Open Space Office

May 26, 2016

This is a guest post by Mattias Le Cren, a content marketing & growth hacking advocate at Azendoo.

I’ve worked in an open space office at Azendoo for over a year now. As I’ve discovered, open office spaces present fantastic benefits. But I’ve had to learn how to avoid the hidden traps which can impact how effective we are in our work.

Azendoo is a Bordeaux, France-based startup that provides a work management app for teams.

We work in a special place in Bordeaux, the Darwin ecosystem. Built on former military barracks it is now an alternative space shared by over 100 companies and associations looking to reduce their environmental footprints, create new economic synergies and promote urban cultures.

Our open space office is composed of one room and five big desks for the 21 of us. We also have a cube, a living room area, and a repurposed phone booth – but more on that later.

Achieving personal productivity

Man being productive in an open space office environment

Being productive is a personal thing. You have to make the efforts to get your work done.

But everyone works differently. And has different moments during the day (and the week) when they are at their most productive.

Open space office productivity hurdles

Through experience, I feel that the main problem with open space offices is that it is difficult to “get in the zone” and to stay in it. This is mainly because of:

  • background noise which inhibits focus and concentration.
  • team members randomly dropping by or shouting your name to ask you a question
  • the lack of privacy. I find myself stepping out of the office or going into our phone booth to make calls, and I never feel at ease when I do them in the office.
  • feeling guilty for making noise which can disturb the team, and I don’t like being overheard, whether the calls are personal or business.
  • the lack of personalization you can add to your own space in the office. All I have is a R2D2 pomodoro figurine and a sewn panda my wife made for me, both sitting on my desk.

To overcome those challenges, these are the tips I’ve picked up through trial and error, or from advice teammates have given me to achieve the optimum productivity in the open space office.

» Get to work early

A great tip to get work done when you are working in a particularly noisy office, is to get there extra early in the morning.

I found out that I was more productive in the early morning, so this option works well for me.

I get my most important task out of the way and it also helps me feel better, because I already accomplished something big that day.

And as we work throughout the day we tend to use up our cognitive capacity, so staying extra late at work would generally not be a good idea.

» The headphones paradox

I always loved music. But now music is more of a tool to “get in the zone” and to get stuff done. I can barely get any writing done if I’m not listening to music.

It helps me focus and works as a high focus productivity bubble.

Always have your headphones within reach and have a few playlists ready when it gets too noisy, and noise canceling headphones are much more effective.

I personally prefer listening to music I never heard before.

It kills two birds with one stone: I discover good music, and I achieve higher focus because I free my subconscious from searching from lyrics or other know beat patterns in my brain.

» Pomodoro your day

I don’t always use Pomodoros, but when I do I get really productive.

It’s all about personal balance, you might adjust the length of pomodoro, or the number of pomodoros per day.

I like waiting to have a few similar tasks and batch them in one pomodoro, or tackle really big task this way. Anyhow, it works best when you block out all interruption.

» Blocking interruptions

Number one: wear those headphones. It will make your colleagues think twice before coming to you directly.

What I do when I see someone in my team wearing headphones is I send them a direct message in Azendoo, this way they answer when they want to and I don’t interrupt their workflow.

Second, disable all notifications. Pause your email notifications if you usually have them turned on, and log out all your chat apps.

Don’t worry the messages will still be there when you log back in. Put your phone on silence, and start focusing on the task at hand.

Also don’t hesitate to take your work elsewhere. Step out of the office, go to the nearest coffee shop, or you can even remote work from home.

I enjoy doing this from time to time to change the environment, and it I feel it affects my productivity too.

» Set your priorities

Setting priorities is a must for any work environment, but even more so in an open office. You will have people come to you with requests almost daily and you have to find time to deal with them.

If you don’t have your own priorities straightened out you will end your week looking back at your task list only to see it bigger than it was on Monday.

What I do is I ask the whole team on the Monday team meeting what their request are likely to be during the week and plan accordingly, alongside my priorities.

I also schedule a couple important tasks for each day which leaves room for lower priority tasks and eventually small requests from the team.

» Take breaks

Don’t hesitate to step out of the office to make calls or have some work done; or simply take a walk to clear your head.

I enjoy taking short walks outdoors while eating a fruit, it gives me the little boost needed to stay at the optimum productivity.

» Schedule your work around routines

Setting routines can be a very effective way to be productive throughout the week.

It teaches your brain to do specific tasks and it becomes easier with time to do them when scheduled at the same time each day or each week.

Fred, our CMO, has this routine:

  • Monday is dedicated to stats
  • Wednesday afternoon to marketing intel
  • Thursdays are her creativity days where she comes up with her upcoming growth hacking experiments
  • Friday morning is her performance analysis time of the week

The rest of the time she works on whatever is currently most important on the marketing roadmap.

Staying productive as a team

A team being productive in an open space office environment

Nowadays more than ever, however much productive you or I can be, we cannot accomplish everything alone.

We depend on our team members, colleagues, contractors, and other people to get the work done.

Our team works a bit differently. All of our collaborative work happens in our Azendoo application.

We use it to share task lists, collaborate on tasks, communicate, share documents and links with the team, track our projects and so much more.

That implies that I can be collaborating with three other colleagues on a particular task without the sign of a whisper to any of them.

All our communication will take place on a given task and the rest of the team won’t notice.

The benefits of using such platforms in an open space office are that:

  • It contributes to a quieter environment because conversations happen in team messages, tasks and private messages
  • We can collaborate with remote teams and external collaborators
  • It creates a record of everything
  • And allows anyone else to jump in at any moment and get up to speed easily

And when we need to voice our concerns with schedule a quick meeting with only the necessary people.

Or sometimes we just stand up and have a quick chat to make sure things are clear and correct.

Here are some of the other ways our team collaborates better in an open space office environment:

» Communicate often

Communication is difficult, but also primordial. Open space offices were designed to foster communication and innovation in companies.

So take advantage of this as a team and talk with your colleagues.

Whether you are discussing important issues, or simply having small talk, it is important to keep conversations flowing.

Don’t worry too much about disturbing the others since they are either wearing their headphone, or taking advantage of the dynamic environment.

Don’t hesitate to raise issues and throw ideas at each other, that is what sparks creativity and innovation.

We do this both on and off the app.

When I see the person I want to talk to is in the zone I send them a direct message or ping them in a task, so they can continue working and help me when they have time.

When I see they aren’t in the zone I walk to them or call them out.

» Centralize your work

Having a central hub to manage your team’s work is probably the most productivity and collaboration gain your team can have.

The benefits would be too many to list here and would require another full post about it, luckily I’ve already done that.

But that’s only my heavily biased opinion since I work for the best team work management app out there.

» Organize quick meetings

We have two weekly standups to know what everyone will be working on this week on the Mondays; and what they’ve actually achieved on the Friday.

We try to make it quick and to the point, but it’s also the opportunity to celebrate the small wins.

Aside from these two team wide meetings, we have smaller team meetings on Mondays to go deeper into the details of what needs to be done.

And after that we have the occasional meetings that we like to keep short and invite only the people that are directly involved.

Then if anything important comes out of it we communicate it to the rest of the team.

» Organize your office space

I think it’s important to make the office as comfortable and as pleasant to work in as possible. But it also needs to be practical.

We have a small “cube” consisting of three walls to separate from the rest of the office to have small meetings and make calls.

We also have a “living room” area where we can display presentations on a big screen and lay back in comfy couches.

Making separate spaces in your open space office can make it both more pleasant and practical so it is something to consider if you haven’t already.

» Being in the zone at the same time

Sometimes the office gets really quiet. That means that everyone is in the zone, getting things done.

This is probably the best time to get in the zone as well since the amount of noise is at its minimum.

The quietest times for our team are usually between 2pm and 4pm, once everyone gets back to their work after lunch time.

» Have a team routine

Just like the team meetings become part of a routine, your team can also schedule their week in a routine.

For example here, on Monday we set out some goals to achieve by the end of the week, it could be a new feature or improving an existing one.

The team works hard to deliver during the week and we ship it on Thursdays.

Then Friday is dedicated to fixing bugs and polishing the app, and we never start something new on Fridays.

» Loosen up

Last but not least, work is important, but that doesn’t mean you should always be serious.

Take it easy and loosen up.

In our office we have nerf wars, and pop a beer from time to time to loosen up the atmosphere.

Connecting with teammates in a social way has a big impact on our spirit to get things done as a team.

What I love about open space offices

On the days when I don’t have to get writing done, I can easily stay all day without my headphones on.

I actually find myself enjoying the background noise. Listening to people getting things done kind of boost my own productivity. Like some sort of positive productivity peer pressure dynamic.

Being able to shout out to anyone in the office when I need information quickly is also something that has proven very valuable in the past. Especially when working on urgent matters.

Also being able to discuss about anything at any time creates very interesting conversations and usually fosters creativity and provides great ideas.

I believe that each work setting, may it be individual offices, shared closed offices, or open space offices, has its advantages and flaws.

But open space offices are designed with collaboration in mind, and working in open space offices forces team members to collaborate with each other more often.

Recap

If you take away only one piece of advice out of this article – it should be to do what you need to do to get in your zone to get things done.

Every office is different and every person has a different approach to productivity, so try out different things and figure out what works best for you and your team.

Staying productive in an open space office isn’t easy. You can never predict what’s going to happen, but it also what makes it interesting.

I hope you enjoyed these few tips and I would be very interested in reading your own tips about staying productive in an open space office.

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