FM Checklist: 8 tips for being productive in a crowded office

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While it can be invigorating to work in a busy, lively space, an office filled with noise and distractions can actually hurt workplace productivity and increase the personal stress of a workforce. The popularity of open office designs, coupled with the high costs of real estate, has lead to many companies operating in these crowded, loud environments. If you find your employees in this position, encourage them to follow these tips to remain productive in a busy workplace.

While cubicles are a thing of the past, an open office layout presents its own unique challenges, like noise and lack of privacy. What are some ways that office workers can mitigate these problems? 

A Brief History of the Cubicle

Nowadays, the cubicle is slowly becoming a relic, alongside the typewriter, cassette player and PalmPilot. What led to its downfall? Cubicles were a stronghold until the ‘80s, but by the ‘90s Silicon Valley companies encountered a major problem: Because cubicle walls obstructed their sight, employees had trouble finding each other, which reduced their productivity.

On top of that, cubicle walls were required by the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system to be 42 inches or lower, so that workers could have more exposure to natural light. Due to these factors, the open office has risen as a major trend in office design.

1. Create a virtual wall

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Noise is one of the most disruptive factors when it comes to being productive in a crowded space. Tune out these distractions with a pair of headphones and some white noise or music. Opt for tracks without lyrics if you're listening to music, especially if your work requires reading or writing.

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If you're especially sensitive to noise, you might want to consider investing in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. A quick and easy way to block out noisy distractions is to bring out the headphones when things get too noisy around you. Noise-cancellation headphones are always a solid, if expensive option, but earbuds and music to block out other sounds will work just as well. If neither are allowed in your office, see whether you can use earplugs instead.

2. Enjoy the outdoors

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Crowded workplaces can create a sense of restlessness and overstimulation. Going outside often throughout your workday gives your mind and body a chance to rest by putting you in an environment with much more open space and quiet. If possible, try using your break to walk through a park or a nearby green space.

3. Opt for PMs

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Instead of being constantly pulled off task by various demands, ask your co-workers to send you personal messages before asking for your help. 

This lets you prioritize your communication needs for the day and reduces interruptions so you can stay focused on the task at hand.

Encourage your team members to use the same communication and project management tools, which will allow them to see exactly what others are working on so that they know when (or when not) to approach a coworker.

4. Keep personal deadlines

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Track your time or keep your own personal deadlines for the day to maintain a sense of urgency and focus. Try implementing hard-stop ending times into your conversations or use time management strategies like the popular Pomodoro technique to structure your work and breaks.

5. Pack a nomad's bag

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Packing light for your workday means fewer items to organize and a neater space at your desk. Try using smaller notebooks and carrying fewer pens and snacks to keep your bag easy to comb through. This has the added benefit of letting you quickly move somewhere else, like a different desk or a nearby coffee shop, in case the environment becomes too hectic.

6. Meditate

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Some offices have both private areas as well as open-office plans. If yours doesn’t, see if there’s an available conference room where you can escape and work for an hour or two. Be sure to check with the office admin to see if anyone else will be using the space. With this in mind, you can either plan for the interruption or find a different room.

Science has put heavy weight into the benefits of meditation in the workplace, which can be the perfect break to soothe your senses from any unwanted noise and intrusions of space. Meditation doesn't have to be time-consuming, either.

There are plenty of meditation apps like Calm and Headspace as well as guided meditation clips, which each take less than 10 minutes to go through.

7. Consider privacy filters

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When an office is crowded, people will see what you are up to. This isn't an issue for some, but for those who'd like a bit more privacy around their activities, installing a privacy filter for your computer screen can give you more peace of mind as you focus on getting your work done.

8. Set the tone with teammates

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Though you may not be able to change your environment, you do have control over your time. One suggestion is starting your work day an hour or two earlier than everyone else. With no one else around to distract you, you can easily plow through your workload, and save the less intensive tasks for later in the day.

Having certain things on your desk may invite coworkers to linger and chat, such as bowls of candy, desk decorations and office supplies. While there’s no harm in having these things on your desk, it would be a good idea to hide them while you’re under time pressure. Responding to Dolan’s blog, commenter brenda has another good idea to add: If you have a guest chair near your desk, placing items in the seat will discourage people from sitting down and making themselves at home.

Employ the golden rule and treat your co-workers how you would like to be treated. Avoid interrupting others while they work and be mindful of their time needs and tasks. Try not to encroach on their personal space and be flexible in terms of how you communicate with them. Cooperation with your teammates will make your day-to-day experience in a crowded office much more manageable

A crowded office can cause a whole host of productivity issues, but with the right approach, you can keep a peaceful state of mind and stay focused on your tasks.

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If you can’t use earphones or earplugs, and you don’t have anywhere else to work, you can still do several things to discourage your coworkers from disturbing you. Set up a tray for incoming documents so that they don’t have to be handed to you. If your office uses an instant messenger to communicate online, set your status to Away. The commenter mentioned in #4 has another great idea here: Simply make a sign that says you’re concentrating on work and will get back to them later.

Because cubicles are becoming a thing of the past, it’s crucial that facilities managers help workers adjust to the open-office environment. Thankfully, such adjustments can be easily made, with some discussion over etiquette expectations and alternative work spaces.

Photos: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock.com, Antoine Beauvillain, Ryan McGuire, Jan Vašek, Alejandro Escamilla, Ed Gregory, baranq / Shutterstock.com, Yu. Samoilov, Ed Gregory