How To Focus When You Work in An Open Office Space | Beth's Blog

How To Focus When You Work in An Open Office Space

Happy Healthy Nonprofit

In the Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact without Burnout, my co-author Aliza Sherman and I share a framework to think more broadly about creating a culture of wellbeing in the workplace.  It includes our relationship with our physical environment and in the workplace that refers to the nonprofit’s physical office space.

When nonprofits invest in creating physical spaces that inspire employees to show up for work, staff is more engaged, productive, happy, and healthy.   There are numerous reports, indices, and studies, such as Gensler’s Workplace Index, that explore the relationship between physical space design and business performance metrics.

The Gensler study suggests that employees need four different work areas to be productive:  focus, collaborate, learn, and socialize.   And that means saying goodbye to cubicles and fixed seating plans.  Many nonprofits are moving to open office floor plans with flexible seating.  Such spaces offer great benefits for collaboration, transparency, knowledge sharing, learning, creativity, and team building.  But there are challenges, too.

This image above, recently making the rounds on social media, is a funny statement on the challenges of an open office layouts, where there are no walls or doors.   The three biggest problems associated with open office plans are: noise, interruptions, and a lack of privacy.   So, how do you balance collaboration with the need for individual focus time?

This week I was lucky enough to do a Happy Healthy Nonprofit mini-workshop at the Global Giving office, an organization that I have known and worked for the past ten years.    Global Giving’s office uses an open office layout to maximize collaboration and connections between staff and projects.   There are no traditional offices with doors to close, but there are conference rooms with doors.

They also have a large communal space that is used for socializing, staff meetings, learning, and events.  It is large space with a kitchen, library, and enough chairs and technology to accommodate an all-staff meeting including remote staff.  The seating includes a variety of chairs and couches and the room can be configured in different ways depending on the type of meeting.

Research shows that “quiet time” during the work day restores your nervous system, helps you sustain energy, and conditions your mind to be more adaptive and creative — all necessary for staff to be effective in their work. You may be wondering whether the Global Giving has the opportunity for quiet time in order to do focus solo work that does not require collaborating with others. Based on what I observed and heard, yes!

There is a section of the office that has dividers is known at the “Quiet Zone.”  It is a place for staff to go when they don’t want to be interrupted.    It is also has two communal standing desks for those who want to stand while working quietly.

There is also this mini-conference room for 2 or 3 person meetings.  You can’t see it, but it includes a white board and it is almost looks like a mini-meditation room that I have seen on other offices.

While having quiet rooms and spaces to work is great, how do you encourage staff to respect each other’s need for quiet time and make it part of the work culture?

Global Giving understands that creating a culture of wellbeing takes time, process, and patience, especially when we are all so busy.   I noticed a set of signs on the wall that addressed the need to balance collaboration with solo time for quiet and focused work.   The signs summarized staff discussions around this topic, including the following:

  • Respect others who are working or focusing – encouraging people not to interrupt
  • Think outside the desk – encouraging people to use other spaces
  • Communicate your needs – encouraging people to let others know when they need quiet time
  • Book conference rooms thoughtfully – there’s a shortest of conference rooms, so this encourages people to use the conference when they booked it.

Global Giving was featured in our book, The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, in several chapters, including the following culture change story.    I was excited to see the “Listen, Act, Learn, Repeat” on the wall, one of Global Givings stated values and also related to a story in the book:

Several years ago, GlobalGiving facilitated an all-staff workshop where they named and made explicit their core values. Their values included: Always Open; Never Settle; Committed to Wow; and Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat. It was not long before the organization’s values – like “Never Settle” – made staff feel stretched and conflicted about their work/life balance. Staff hit a bit of a crisis point, according to Alison Carlman, Director of Marketing and Communications.

Carlman recalls, “Our executive team heard what the staff was saying, and they allocated time and funding for us to design our own process for identifying our challenges and recommending solutions.”

Staff set out to answer questions like:

• How can we create a safety net to support us when we feel overwhelmed by our values?
• How should we navigate the absolutes like ‘never’ and ‘always’ that are part of our values?
• How do we balance what makes sense for our mission and vision and what makes cents for our nonprofit business?

Their staff spent a day with a facilitator and came up with some strategies to change their way of working that balanced excellence without excessive work hours and stress. The organization also instituted time and project management systems and tools to help staff avoid stressful work flows and commitments. But more importantly, says Carlman, “The executive team invested resources into guest speakers, short courses, tools and staff over the course of a year to help us all become more confident at listening, experimenting, learning, and pivoting or persevering. It has created a workplace that is fun, dynamic, and sustainable.”

There is a lot to learn from Global Giving’s approach to creating a culture of wellbeing.  It includes a myriad of efforts including leadership listening and modeling, incorporating staff feedback and engagement, explicit nudges and cues, making changes to work flow, and continuous learning.

14 Responses

  1. Caroline Herbert says:

    I was worried when I began working in a totally open, no-assigned-seating office, for the American Society of Interior Designers ( However I found the space to be incredibly quiet thanks to fabric panels and other sound-absorbing materials, and, especially, the use of a sound masking/white noise system. Focus on acoustics is a key element of the Comfort feature of the WELL building standard: Also, as with Global Giving, the availability of private spaces when you need one is key. And then you can always plug in your headphones!

  2. Denise says:

    Oh, I was going to tell you something our non-prof started doing last fall… after our big conference in Houston, (Grace Hopper Celebration), one of our marketing team members had a brilliant idea.

    You’ve seen the teddy bears in Houston’s airport and gift shops that say “I Need My Space,” right? Well the org bought one of these bears for each row of desks. When someone needs uninterrupted work time, they grab the bar and put it on their desk. This alerts co-workers to their need for uninterrupted focus time.

    I’m remote, so I don’t get to see how it works very often but it seems to be a great idea. And, it’s thematically right for our org, too.

  3. […] Source: How To Focus When You Work in An Open Office Space | Beth’s Blog […]

  4. Jeff Remington says:

    Nice article Beth! I lead project 5647 on GG. I took about 10 of my public school students from PA to GG’s old offices. Even that space was as you describe. My kids were impressed. However, we had just spent the morning being guests at the Embassy of Haiti and his Excellency (Paul Alditore) prior to our GG visit. Old fashioned Haitian hospitality trumps everything that a modern business culture can throw out there. If you’ve been to Haiti, you no what I am talking about. Thanks for the article. : )

  5. Suraj Soni says:

    My problem is i am into a private office and we have fixed seating and more importantly there are nobody whose into the same profile as i am in and most of them don’t even understand what my job profile is so learning here is very difficult for me only option left is internet.

  6. Beth says:

    Denise, I love that. Do you have a photo of this someplace?

  7. Beth says:

    Caroline: Does the organization have an explicit policy about respecting everyone’s need for focus and quiet time?

  8. Denise says:

    @Beth, I don’t but I can get Laura to share one!

  9. Caroline Herbert says:

    @Beth, Yes, based on the various work zones in the space. It’s totally acceptable to “hide” for the day in one of the more private spaces, and everyone understands that you want to be left alone. I spent today working in one of the private offices, closed off from the bustle of the open space, but that was mainly because I have a cold :-).

  10. Beth Kanter says:

    Do the different zones have signage? Is the policy written up in your employee handbook? Thanks again for sharing your experience!

  11. Emy says:

    I suffered the noise of the open space when I was working for a big company here in Italy a few years ago (in 2012 I think). They had some old working techniques, in my opinion, where everybody could talk loudly whenever they wanted. Headphones were not possible because my manager could ask anything in any moment.

    Much better to focus now working as a consultant/freelancer, even though I sometimes miss team work. Thanks for this article Beth!

  12. Vicky Soni says:

    this is the problem faced by the many people who are mostly introvert or can’t focus on something.

  13. April says:

    It is an especially important issue when working in some co-working hub. Really it’s hard to find a decent co-working space….they are always such noisy. Even earbuds can’t help sometimes.

  14. Jill Roberts says:

    When I am working in cafeteria – noise canceling headphones and ear plugs works great for me. Some days I can’t concentrate even using those. There are always ways for improvement.

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