The frustrating disruptions that come with working in an open-plan office can play havoc with our concentration. How do you get around it, without being rude?

There’s no such thing as a quiet day at the office for Jackson Carpenter.

With about 80 people sitting around him in his company’s open concept office, the Utah-based public relations manager is constantly chatting or brainstorming with colleagues. When he’s not doing that, the sales team directly behind him is banging a gong every time they make a sale.

Think of the movie Wolf of Wall Street, but without the debauchery, he says.

While he enjoys the office’s energy, it can be difficult to focus and get things done. It’s a common complaint from those of us working in open concept spaces.

Offices with no walls or even low-walled cubicles can reduce productivity by about 15%

But there has been some progress: a few years ago, his employers gave everyone a block with one side painted red and the other green. When the green side is up on a desk, you can walk up to someone to talk. When the red side is visible, it means stay away.

“In this kind of work environment that’s important,” says Carpenter, who started at the company, Lucid Software, in October. “It’s a neat thing.”

Open office escapades

With the vast majority of us now working in open concept offices — some studies have said that 70% of US workers work in this kind of environment — companies are being forced to come up with novel ways to ensure we stay productive and don’t find ourselves driven delirious from the noise and chaos. Offices with no walls or even low-walled cubicles can reduce productivity by about 15% and half of employees say a lack of sound privacy is the biggest problem with open office spaces, according to the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

The regular, unexpected interruptions that come with open office plans are a big part of the problem. Researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that the typical office worker is interrupted about every three minutes and it can take about 23 minutes to resume work following a disruption.

There’s no behavioural norms for this

A small number of companies have been dreaming up ways to help people stay focused, says Donna Flynn, vice-president of WorkspaceFutures, furniture company Steelcase’s research division. That said, most of us are on our own, finding mundane and more extreme ways to tell people to stay away, she says. 

Most of us first reach for our headphones, the most common do-not-disturb signal for staffers. But even that might not always work to keep wandering colleagues at bay. Some of us have gone so far to build false “walls” around our spaces, with whiteboards or stacks of books, says Flynn.

How a simple hat saved the day

Then there are the more sophisticated measures. In the last few months of 2017, Steelcase will release a desk that comes with a red and green light prominently displayed. When the light is red, stay away.

You can buy similar devices now, though. Danish-company Plenom has the BusyLight, a red-green light that can connect to your calendar and automatically switch colours depending whether you’re busy or not. Latvia-based Greynut’s Luxafor Flag is a flag-shaped LED light that can stick on your computer and change colours depending on whether you're busy or not.

The former is used by more than 10,000 companies worldwide, says CEO Christian Juel Jensen, while sales have increased 200% over the last two years. The latter has seen month-over-month sales increase by 33% since launching in February 2015.

He couldn’t get any work done because people kept coming into his office

Of course, anyone can come up with a signal, but it only works if everyone around you is in on the game. Several years ago, a manager at Coca-Cola wanted to find a way to both keep his door open to staff and tell them that he was working. He prided himself in having an open door policy, but he couldn’t get any work done because people kept coming into his office. His do-not-disturb signal: a red Coca-Cola baseball cap. If he was wearing it, he didn’t want to be bothered — employees could still come into his office in an emergency. He’d take the cap off when he was ready to take visitors again.

The key to success (aside from the obviousness of the hat) was that the manager told his staff exactly what he was doing, wrote Laura Stack, a productivity expert in her book Leave the Office Earlier. She suggests getting the entire office to adopt a signal together.

“Get together with your department and agree on a signal everyone will use consistently,” she wrote. It doesn’t have to be high-tech, but could be as simple as installing curtains across a cubicle door, turning a nameplate around or partially closing an office door.

Unfortunately, there’s no research to suggest what signals work best, says Nancy Stone, a professor of psychological science at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. “There’s no behavioural norms for this,” says Stone.

Carpenter says that the red-green block has made a huge difference. At his previous workplace, which also had an open concept office, there were no signals and everyone chatted nonstop throughout the day, no matter what needed to get done.

“It’s amazing. Just by flipping something I can say I’m busy,” he says. “And I need that.”

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