Best Practices for Surviving an Open Office Environment

The open office environment was praised as a godsend for companies and employees alike. Breaking down the office walls was supposed to establish a vibrant work environment that would not only increase productivity and minimize costs, but also improve morale. It would open up discussions between coworkers, promote a “many hands make light work” mentality, and spark that spontaneous creativity which leads to new and profitable ideas.

survive open office environment

But for many of us, the open office is less a godsend and more a punishing behavioral experiment Ivan Pavlov would find too cruel to subject a dog to.

The open office is considered to be detrimental, rather than a boost, to creativity. Summarizing a 2013 study, Lindsey Kaufman notes that half of surveyed workers found a lack of sound privacy problematic and more than 30 percent complained about a lack of visual privacy. These were found to negatively affect attention span, productivity, creative thinking, and satisfaction.

Of course, now that all the walls are gone, you’ll have a hard time convincing your employer to reinvest in private offices. What are you to do? Here are some of the best practices for surviving in an open office environment.

Schedule Some Me Time

When you need help on a difficult problem, the open office is wonderful for prompting collaboration. But it can be a source of constant distraction if you’re the one constantly being asked for help. You start to focus on your work and someone asks for assistance. You agree and provide the help, but just as you start to focus again, another “um” floats into your ear. Not one to say no, you get up to help.

To break this cycle, schedule time to focus exclusively on important, attention-requiring tasks. Let your coworkers know you will be unavailable during these hours, then commit yourself to your work. Try to keep these hours consistent, so it will be common knowledge that you are not to be bothered during this time.

Create Visual Barriers

Use visual barriers to tell your coworkers you are not to be disturbed. A pair of noise-canceling headphones will be perfect, as they eliminate unwelcome racket and provide a nice visual cue. Be sure to get the hefty headphones, not tiny earbuds. Sure, there isn’t much of a difference, but the larger headphones are more noticeable.

Other visual barriers may include a cubical curtain, a strategically placed binder, or even a potted plant. If your coworker can’t make eye contact with you, it will be more difficult to approach you from small, sudden favors. If these visual barriers aren’t possible, you may consider a “Do Not Disturb” sign. Yeah, it’s a bit brusque, but it may be the most straightforward way to tell others you need to work.

Schedule Work Judiciously

Of course, you can’t schedule your entire day to do your own thing—being too antisocial will negate the advantages of your open office. So, remember to set up open door hours for collaborations and low-attention tasks. These hours should be when you’re least focused, which, for most people, will be after lunch or the mid-afternoon.

Use these hours to help coworkers, practice team building, bounce ideas off others, and tackle low-impact work. Be sure your coworkers know these hours are open door, and take down those visual barriers. We don’t want to be sending mixed signals here.

Go to Your Secret Space

Even with your “me” time and visual barriers, the open office can still be distracting. There’s just too much going on—too much chatter, too much movement, too much everything—for you to properly focus. When this happens, find a private space to work alone. Try reserving a conference room and shut the door. Or head down the block to the local coffee shop. If you can remove yourself from interruptions and find a place for focus and reflection, do it.

Take Breaks Alone

The constant noise and movement of the open office can fray the nerves of the most extroverted among us. There will be times you need to take a break, not just from the work, but from the pressures of the office as well. To make these breaks count, get as far away as you can: sneak into an empty break room or head to that coffee shop. Simply taking a walk outside can be enough to disengage from the office and recharge your mental energy, giving you the spirit to tackle the remainder of the day.

The open-office environment promised us many advantages, chief among them improved employee creativity, productivity, and morale. While it does provide some of those, such as the ability to reach out and request help easily, the truth is that many people find the lack of privacy and noise pollution a serious detriment to their working lives. If you’re one of those people, these best practices can help you survive your open-office environment and hopefully enhance the work half of your work-life balance.

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