5 Ways to Focus in an Open Workspace

Hint: It has everything to do with sound (and the lack thereof).

The problem with focusing—or not focusing, to be exact—in an open office space has everything to do with sound: the way it impacts our cognition, behavior and moods. We turned to sound expert Julian Treasure for the how-to on getting everything done, even in your open-floorplan workplace.

Understand how sound affects you

According to renowned sound expert Julian Treasure, sound has an impact on your behavior (think: when you instinctively move away from an unpleasant sound), mood (think: when your favorite song comes on and you’re instantly happy) and cognition (think: when your deskmate is on the phone and you can’t focus on anything else). Understanding the way sound affects you is essential to getting things done in any work environment.

Create a space that works for you

Everyone is different, and the type of workspace you need depends on the type of work you do. The ideal office should have separate spaces for collaboration, concentration and creativity. “Open offices are designed for collaboration, and they’re excellent for that,” says Julian. “But they’re terrible for concentration, which requires quiet.” When it comes to creativity, experiment to find what works. “Designers often need a creative stimulus, like music, while writers tend to work best in silence,” he adds.

Move if you can

“Studies show that people are one-third as productive in an open office space as they would be in a quieter environment,” says Julian. “People’s voices and phone calls are the two most distracting sounds, and they’re extremely prevalent in an open office. Our brains can only manage 1.6 conversations at one time.” We can’t comprehend another conversation, let alone a project that requires real concentration. If you’re stuck in an open office space and need to focus, go to a conference room or other quiet space, or request to work from home.

Block out the noise

If you can’t move, use headphones to play sounds that counter the sound of conversations around you. Don’t listen to music—you’re only layering one distracting sound on top of another. “Music is meant to be listened to. It takes your attention away from your work,” says Julian. “Instead, listen to gentle, repetitive sounds, like rainfall.” Our copywriter swears by the Noizio app, which has a few great sound options to choose from, and Julian and his team created Study, an app that plays sounds proven to help you focus.

Accept what you can’t change

“If you can’t move or use headphones, accept the situation you’re in,” says Julian. “Getting frustrated about your distracting work environment only consumes more of your valuable mental bandwidth.” Our advice? Light a candle, make your workspace visually pleasing (if it can’t be audibly pleasing) and do your best with what you’ve got.