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Ask HN: How do you work in an open office plan and get anything done?
12 points by econner 1479 days ago | hide | past | web | 11 comments | favorite
I started at a company that has an open office plan (i.e. where everyone sits in the same big open room and can freely walk between people). For those of you who have been doing this for awhile: how do you get anything done? One day I noticed that I got interrupted about every 20 minutes by something..even with the super duper noise canceling headphones. The times that I don't work in the office feel orders of magnitude more productive. Thanks.



I hate open office plan environments. I feel very lucky to work from my own home office full time now. That being said, I've done my time in open offices. Some things to try:

- Try saying "No" to interruptions. This is probably better worded as "Sorry, I'm really heads down on something right now - can you shoot me an email about it, or maybe I can come find you later?" Do that enough, and people will grow out of the habit of constantly interrupting, because there's no reward.

- Develop a signal for your coworkers that indicates you're in "heads down" mode and that you shouldn't be disturbed. When I worked at Google, one of the SREs had a sign on his desk that said "If Cody is wearing the rockstar glasses, he is thinking and shouldn't be disturbed". I've also visited offices that have sliding whiteboard doors on their cubicles, and the office policy is that if the whiteboard door is open, you're fair game to interrupt, but if it's closed, you need to be left alone.

- In ear headphones may be better than noise canceling, if you haven't tried those. I have a nice pair of shure's (SE210's) with these tips, which are pretty similar to earplugs: http://compare.ebay.com/like/290692040848. I also had custom molded earpieces made, but I could never get one to make a good seal. The other one was great though, so it might be worth a shot.

- Try coming in early or staying late. Any time spent when the office is more empty will likely be more productive.

- Hide:) Conference rooms are good, and out of the way couches or stairwells sometimes work.

As someone who is way more productive in quiet environments with minimal distractions, I wish open plan offices and "bullpen" environments weren't so trendy among startups.


I have never actually heard an engineer ever proclaim why an open office plan is definitively a better approach to do things. I have heard things like "Foster open communication" or "Collaboration" but I am not really clear why one couldn't collaborate online or slip into a meeting room and conspire. I haven't got a good answer from non-engineering folks who usually decide on the office plan.

Rant aside, I try to get to work incredibly early and get a significant portion of my work done then. Another option as someone else suggested is in-ear phones. These can vary from $200 (Shure) to $500 (Westone ) for a really awesome pair and can get some getting used to, however they surpass active noise cancellation headphones in terms of shutting down coworker noise.


Worked in that environment for 5 years... I honestly never found a way. Now work mostly remotely.

I feel like I tried everything - headphones, locking myself in meeting rooms, being uninviting when people interrupted.

I wish I could tell you a story about how I figured it out but now I only take jobs that are at least semi-remote. I would consider a job where there are real offices for everyone but this seems to be increasingly difficult to find.

I'd talk to your boss about working remote 2-3 days a week and proving how much more productive you are during those days.


Yeah I ended up talking to management and arranged to work from home a few days a week, mostly coming in on meeting days or team stuff. I asked them for a trial initially, and when they saw how productive I was when I wasn't in, they were instantly sold on it.


When I worked in an open office, we had a small team of developers. We all wore headphones when we were in the zone, and we communicated during unofficial "quiet time" by using campfire. Eventually, we all started to complete 60 - 90 minute quiet time focused work sprints followed by 5 minutes of break time and joking, before starting the cycle again. It was weird how we all fell into a similar pattern. It made our team stronger, though.


Work from home, get in at 5am, leave at 8pm, have a 'meeting' at an empty desk elsewhere, and finally try to find another job. The problem is that there are lots of roles where success depends on other people. If everyone at the company is doing their own heads down work, this becomes a major issue for people in those roles. It's no mistake that you are being interrupted every 20 minutes.


Two rules we use to manage interruptions: 1) If I have headphones on, IM me. I will respond when convenient. 2) If I am pairing, a server better be on fire.

We make the pair sacrosanct. A greater emphasis on pairing means there is one fewer person to distract you.

Still, there are times when a quiet room is necessary. Striking the balance between productive cross-polination of ideas and total chaos is a tricky dance.


I get in early and do the concentration intensive work then if I can. I've (re)trained myself to tune out stuff. I naturally tune people out but I got rusty when I worked alone in my home office for a few years.


Chat, not talk. Reserve talking (interruptions) for critical things. Everything else, chat even if the person is directly next to you.


Idea paint. We painted our room with idea paint (white board paint) I actually think better in there then anywhere!


buy a couple of cubes. let people use them when they don't want to be distrubed.




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