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Five Ways To Be Productive in an Open Office

By Danielle Schroeder posted 10-21-2019 10:44 AM


Like many civil engineers, I work in an open-office layout. This type of office is great for the collaborative work that is involved in engineering, but it can also get distracting when you’re trying to complete tasks that require independent work.


Here are five ways to be more productive in an open-office layout:

  • Invest in a good pair of headphones – While noise-cancelling headphones may not block everything, they do a pretty great job! I myself bought a pair of over-ear headphones (with a detachable microphone) to use in our office. We also have white-noise machines throughout the office that help tune out background noise. I typically listen to regular music or TEDx Talks to keep myself motivated with positive energy if I am doing tasks such as drafting, where I have already done most of my deep thinking. When my tasks are more intensive, I tend to switch to instrumental versions of songs I like so that I am not distracted by the words.


  • Huddle rooms are your friend – When I’m working on something that requires my undivided attention, I need some time of solitude. For example, when I’m writing a technical report and trying to word-sleuth my way into summarizing the observations and calculations completed, I prefer complete silence so that I don’t end up typing a portion of someone’s overheard conversation. Our office has several huddle rooms and each room is composed of a single table and four chairs. I have also used a huddle room for taking calls such as the ASCE Topic Moderators call, where I know I will be doing a lot of talking, so as not to interrupt my deskmates. Additionally, if you will be meeting with a colleague for an extended time, take the initiative and suggest going to a huddle room to discuss.


  • Remember the golden rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can be applied to many aspects of the workplace. The way most of our desks are oriented in our office, it is difficult to see someone approaching your desk, and that’s led to me getting spooked on multiple occasions. One of my colleagues came up with the solution of first sending the bike emoji through Skype for Business to serve as a heads-up that you are about to head over to their desk. Now, when I need something from someone else, I just send the bike emoji before walking over to prevent them from getting spooked as well. 


  • Be flexible – Our workforce is filled with diverse people with different personalities and communications styles, so the ideal way you like to be communicated with may not always happen. You will sometimes need to flex, but if you give a bit, they might just meet you halfway!

  • Embrace the positives – An open office does have its positives: it can lead to serendipitous interaction to help you get to know your colleagues better. Also, overheard conversations aren’t always a bad thing. If you hear a conversation about a problem on a project you might be able to help with, reach out! While I don’t suggest yelling across the office, you could go talk to the person later to volunteer your services or connect them with an expert to help them solve the problem. As a company, we are all on the same team working toward the same goal of delivering excellent projects!

These are my personal tips for working more optimally in an open-office layout. They may not all work for you, but I hope they serve as a launching pad to developing solutions of your own for your specific office!

Danielle graduated in 2017 from Drexel University and received her B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering through their accelerated degree program. She currently works as an Associate Bridge Engineer at Pennoni’s headquarters in their Transportation Division. She is a PennDOT-certified Bridge Safety Inspector and a licensed Engineer in Training and has worked on a variety of bridge reconstruction and rehabilitation projects, including the I-95 Central Access Philadelphia project and the recently constructed retrofit of the Burlington-Bristol Bridge.

Danielle is involved in ASCE locally as the K-12 Outreach Co-chair for ASCE Philadelphia Younger Member Forum (YMF). At the society level, Danielle is a corresponding member of the SEI Student Initiatives Committee and the SEI Public Relations Committee as well as a Topic Moderator for ASCE Collaborate. Danielle is an advocate for STEM outreach, especially to inspire more women to pursue an engineering degree and frequently leads and volunteers for local outreach events. Outside of ASCE, she currently serves as a Senator for the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).  In her spare time, Danielle enjoys watching the Philadelphia Eagles with family and friends and exploring all that Philly has to offer especially food.

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12-12-2019 12:16 PM

Thank you, James! I look forward to hearing from you about implementing the new tips. 

I agree with your additional tip! Keeping a clean and organized desk is also an important part of keeping focused on the task at hand. I personally have a file folder on my desk for miscellaneous papers of any tasks that are currently being checked so that they are easily accessible when it is time to address markups. I also filed papers away into project folders once the task is checked and complete.

10-28-2019 01:18 PM

Great post Danielle!  With Open work environments becoming more and more commonplace it's important to still be able to keep focused.  I use many of these myself, but still some things to try out!

One thing that helps me to stay focused, which applies to any work environment, is keeping my desk as clear as possible.  At the end of every day, I'll go over my desk and put away/discard everything I don't actively need.  Plan sets, pens, calculators, old sticky notes, trash, etc.  While some time is lost in putting away and getting out things, I keep them easy to get and I find it much easier to focus.  Plus I'm not looking for things buried under plan sets.  Not getting distracted by clutter or irrelevant plans keeps my mind on the task at hand.