Show me an article promising me the secret to increased focus and productivity at work and I’ll click on it.

Tips for better professional performance are always popular. Being a curious bunch, we asked our team what their secrets are to avoiding distractions.

The results were mixed. Some people needed a cup of tea and their headphones on to concentrate. Others found silence helped them to stay on task.

So a question was raised: How can employers accommodate different needs and preferences when it comes to improving productivity?

We’ve looked at the top three ways of staying productive at work:

  1. Listening to music to stay focused

Almost half of those we asked said that music was the secret to their productivity at work. From drowning out background noise to sending a clear signal of ‘do not disturb’, donning our headphones is a popular way to maintain concentration.

In an office environment however, particularly an open-plan one, the tinny beat from headphones can cause friction.

Beverly Usher, our HR Manager, offers this advice: ‘Workers who are able to work whilst listening to music should be allowed to do so but clear usage guidelines should be communicated. 

So, be clear on: when the music can be listened to, how they can listen to the music and the implications of their actions on others who aren’t able to function at their best with music playing.  Line managers also need to be able to monitor team deliverables and to prohibit the use of music if it is having a detrimental impact on the team’s output.’ 

  1. Working in silence to stay on task

This was the next most popular way of improving productivity at work. But with keyboards tapping, phones ringing, technology whirring and colleague conversations, total silence can be tough to implement.

Beverly says that context is important: ‘Silence in the workplace is relative; it all depends on the environment. For example, background musical noise would be expected in, say, a restaurant. However, an employee would have difficulty delivering their job if music were playing in the background of a bank or solicitors.’ 

And she offers guidance to those seeking quieter work environments: ‘If silence is important for the successful delivery of work then the employer can enforce ‘silence’. To achieve the wanted workspace operating norms, the employer must communicate and ensure employees know what is expected.’

  1. Working against background noise

At the other end of the scale, yet almost as popular, is background noise. That comforting hum of humans and technology busily working away can help lots of us focus.

Again, Beverly has some advice for us to manage background sounds and cater for employees’ different preferences: ‘Depending on what the background noise is – in this case let’s say it’s team-made rather than something external to the work environment – the employer must consider the time of day when the distraction is present.

If and when it becomes an irritation, break-out areas which can be made relatively sound-proof should be considered. If this isn’t possible maybe a meeting room can be set aside for lunchtime or fun team gatherings, so that those who need to continue working can do so.’

Beverly also suggests that employers should be transparent about their working environment during the recruitment process: ‘It is important to  show how the office operates within your recruitment process. This way the people applying for your roles will know what to expect in terms of what the office space sounds like and if they will be able to work within it.’

Wellbeing in the workplace

So, the key to effectively accommodating everyone’s preferences is to be transparent about your company culture, so as to set employees’ expectations.

It’s to lay out guidelines or ground-rules about music usage or excessive noise, and to ensure line managers are equipped and confident enforcing these where necessary.

And it’s about finding alternative spaces where team members who need a little quiet – or noise! – can work comfortably without distracting their colleagues.

If you’re a small business in a more restricted space, perhaps external areas, like the local coffee shop, could prove useful.

To finish up, let’s go back to Beverly’s thoughts on company culture and how the workplace is evolving to help us be more productive:

Today, employees’ expectations of their workplace centre on doing a good job in an enjoyable learning way. Although an employer’s priority is to ensure that the service is delivered as expected, also at the forefront of their mind should be how they can create a work environment that enables employees to be at their best.’

What’s your secret to productivity in the workplace? Do you thrive on silence or do you need a bit of background challenge to help you concentrate?

Mine, for the record, is a Spotify playlist, cup of something hot next to me and a slice of cake after completing the task as an incentive!

Find out more:

We trialed the Pomodoro technique – did it improve our productivity?

Is the 15 minute break system the key to better workplace focus?

Meet the Hireserve team and get to know us a little better

About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.