Reducing physical distractions in an open workspace

I often post about website redesigns and how their new structure and layout make for an improved user experience. Today I’m going to give some insights in to a redesign of the physical Web department workspace and how it makes for a more productive staff experience.

Old Web Communications “pit”

The Web Communications area is located in an open space in the middle of the Marketing Department. The location has its advantages as we are a short walking distance to anyone in marketing. But that also means anyone else in the office is walking past us every time they visit someone else. There are also four entrances/exists that create traffic right through the middle of our space. The space is pictured above, shame on me for not taking more “before” shots of the office.

A lot of articles the last few years have praised the “open office space” as the holy grail for collaboration and serendipitous interactions. In theory it may be that it allows for that interaction, but if you’ve ever worked in one you know differently. We are huge fans of 37 Signals, a software development firm out of Chicago, for various reasons. We work under a lot of the same constraints, digital environment, write our own products, have clients (they use to), do customer support, training, simple approach to solutions, and everyone has their specialty. The open office space sounded like it was the perfect environment, but we have found we have the same issues as 37 Signals: distractions are the devil to productivity.

If you have been to our space before you know we typically work in the dark (you might not actually recognize it with the lights on, below) and everyone has headphones on. That does a lot to help focus but there is one thing that is out of our control, the constant flow of traffic past desks and occasional comments that break up the work day.

The two desks right in the middle and corner of the “T” that our space creates were being distracted the most. We set out to reduce the number of distractions while still living in the constraints of our space. We don’t have the luxury of moving to a new space like 37 Signals but were able to make some tweaks.

New office setup


What we did and the impact

A few weeks ago I moved my office and now sit in a space separate with Rommel, our project manager. This allows us to talk in isolation without distracting everyone else in the pit. It also forces Rommel to use digital communications to get quick answers to things instead of  walking over to someones desk and distracting them. When someone really needs to concentrate these digital communications are the easier to turn off.

My old office was turned in to a Web conference room but we quickly realize it didn’t get used much as we thought, marketing already has a conference room with a projector that we have access to. We decided to move Jenn, owner of one of the high traffic corner desks, in to a single office since she needs to be able to isolate herself to write and talk to clients on the phone. So far that has worked great, she has been able to concentrate and it has reduced the noise from phone calls in the open Web area a lot.

Chris, was also at a corner desk with a lot of traffic. He needs to be able to get in to flow and solve complex problems and this wasn’t the best spot for him. We ended up moving him back toward the other developers and shifting his desk so his peripheral vision wasn’t a distraction.

Lastly, because there is a hall way in the middle of our space we have separated the office in half, designers/content editors on one side and developers on the other. This allows the developers to collaborate easily without leaving their chairs, and we wanted do the same for the designers. We moved the designers so they are right next to each other and can talk and see each others screens without having to get up.

But isn’t the conference table in the middle distracting? Yes, yes it is. But we have no where else to put it at the moment and the staff isn’t shy about telling people they are too loud and to move to the marketing conference room down the hall.

Did it work?

So far so good. In the past few weeks the Web staff have reported that their ability to concentrate has gone up. Because those two corner desks have been replaced by open space the foot traffic has not had a reason to stop and comment on their way through our space.

Productivity is a moving target, everyone has their own methods and motivations to get in to flow. Tailoring our space to encourage this helps everyone, our staff, our clients and the university.