Finding focus in an open office space

Published on: Jun 14, 2017

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Beth Kanter blue [square] Beth Kanter is an internationally-acclaimed trainer, speaker, and author, most recently of The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, and named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company. Follow her on her blog, as well as on TwitterFacebookYouTube, and LinkedIn. This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on Beth Kanter’s blog.




In The Happy Healthy Nonprofit: Strategies for Impact Without Burnout, my co-author Aliza Sherman and I share a framework for thinking more broadly about a culture of well-being in the workplace. That includes our relationship with our physical environment: When nonprofits invest in spaces that inspire employees, staff is more engaged, productive, happy, and healthy.

In response to numerous reports, indices, and studies, such as Gensler’s U.S. Workplace Survey, 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. 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?

Recently, I was lucky to lead a workshop at the office of GlobalGiving, which uses an open office layout to maximize collaboration and connections between staff and projects. They have a large communal space used for socializing, staff meetings, learning, and events, which includes a kitchen, library, and enough chairs and technology to accommodate an all-staff meeting, including remote staff. Seating includes a variety of chairs and couches, and the room can be configured in different ways depending on the type of meeting.

However, because “quiet time” is necessary for staff to be effective—research shows it restores your nervous system, helps you sustain energy, and conditions your mind to be more adaptive and creative—there is a section of the office known as the “Quiet Zone,” equipped with dividers, where staff can go when they don’t want to be interrupted. There is also an intimate conference room for 2- or 3-person meetings, which looks like the kind of mini-meditation room that I have seen in other offices.

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


GlobalGiving understands that creating a culture of well-being takes time, processes, and patience, especially when staff are all so busy. I noticed a set of signs on the wall that addressed the need to balance collaboration with solo time, summarizing staff discussions around this topic:

  • “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,” encouraging people to consider the scarcity of conference space and use it accordingly.

Another aspect of GlobalGiving’s success in this department was thoughtful culture change. Several years ago, as detailed in The Happy Healthy Nonprofit, GlobalGiving facilitated an all-staff workshop where they defined their core values, including “Always Open”; “Never Settle”; “Committed to Wow”; and “Listen, Act, Learn, Repeat.” However, it was not long before values like “Never Settle” made staff feel stretched and conflicted about their work/life balance.

According to Alison Carlman, Director of Marketing and Communications, “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 absolutes like “never” and “always” in our values?
  • How do we balance what makes sense for our mission and vision, and what makes “cents” for our nonprofit business?

Spending a day with a facilitator, staff came up with some work strategies that balanced excellence with reasonable work hours and stress levels, including organization-wide time- and project-management systems that help staff avoid stressful workflows and commitments. But more importantly, said 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.’” The result, she said, is “a workplace that is fun, dynamic, and sustainable.”