Surviving in an Open Office Space

How to cope when the walls come down

Posted Jun 13, 2014

Two people gossiping as someone walks by

Would you describe yourself as any of the following: a) an introvert; b) easily distracted; c) a loud talker; or d) a private person? If so, you probably struggle with working in an open office.  Don’t fret; with a little effort, you too can make the benefits of an open office work for you.

Here are a few tips to try:

Stay put. If possible, sit in the same desk, beside the same people every day (this will be hard if your office using the hoteling approach, but do your best). The reason is that neuroscience data show that we can tune out familiar voices pretty easily. 

Separate the guests. Unfortunately, because we can’t tune out an unfamiliar voice, offer visitors the royal treatment by giving them one of the few enclosed spaces—you don’t have to admit that this is more for your productivity than theirs!

Use technology to your advantage. Get a headset for your phone so you can hear clearly and be heard without raising your voice.  While you’re at it, change your ring tone so other people’s ringing phones won’t cause you to flinch—you’ll only react to your own.

Build invisible walls. Create an imaginary door that tells people you’re focused and don’t want to be disturbed. I’ve seen people use noise-cancelling head phones, orange flags, and my daughter’s second grade teacher has a sign on her desk that either reads “Open” or “Closed.”

Walk the talk. Be a role model by taking conversations to a separate spot.  Anything more than a quick two-minute conversation should be conducted in a more private space. 

Give away your candy bowl.  If you are an introvert and don’t want people around, or more importantly, if you’re an extrovert and easily distracted, the last thing you want to do is put bait on your desk.  

Show the sign. Develop hand signals or code words to tell people to turn it down. I find the finger to the lips “sssssshhh” sign a bit condescending, but maybe turning a knob or tugging on your ear might work.  Usually you need a hand signal because voices are most likely to get out of control when someone is getting carried away on the phone.

Remove visual distractions.  If you can set up your desk so your back is to the traffic flow, that will help. (Don’t forget to turn off your email notification window too…sometimes the worst distractions are our own doing!)

Use a private space where appropriate.  If your task requires concentration, you might want to find a quiet space to work for a while.  If you can, find an empty office or a quiet spot in the cafeteria when you need to get things done.

7th inning stretch. Take breaks to stretch your legs and get some air.  Your body is only able to concentrate for so long and once you’re nearing the end of that period, an open office is a minefield of shiny objects to be tempted by. Do something that’s good for your concentration and your health and take a 5-minute stretch break.

I wouldn’t trade my open office for anything, but I know that I have to be disciplined to make it work for me and my teammates.  Try some of these ideas to make your open office a boon to collaboration rather than the bane of your existence.