Open Office Survival Strategies

Do you work in the dreaded open office? Y’know, the workplace equivalent of the panopticon? Me too. And it sucks. Big time. It’s the noise, the distractions, the constant invitation to chit chat, as me not having physical privacy means you can interrupt me at any time.

In my building, it’s ALSO the no natural light. We’re in the interior of the floor plan; closed door offices that circle our cube farm have windows.

When I rule the world, that’s getting reversed. You get a private office? Cool. But I’m putting private offices on the INterior, so you don’t ALSO get all the natural light. Why do you get BOTH highly-desired perks???

The open office sucks period, but it really sucks if your work entails deep thinking. Trying to achieve flow. My work does require me to do some deep thinky work, and a lot of writing, so I do have a telecommuting day reserved for that purpose. (I realize that I’m fortunate to work for an organization that allows that and for a manager that allows *me* to do that, as not all do.) I don’t use it regularly – maybe once every couple of months, because as a Manager, one, I need to lead by example and come in. Two, while yes, I technically have the approval, the optics aren’t always good. There are plenty who continue to believe that not being present = not being productive. The presumption is that if you’re working at home, you’re “working.” (As opposed to all my coworkers who are physically present, but on But I digress).

And three, like, probably most jobs, my work is balanced between my own individual tasks, some of which require that deep thinky writing, and working with others as a team. And this is where this gets clunky. It’s hard to mesh personalities and work styles together. Here’s an example. When I’m done with curriculum development, it’s time to, well, figure out how to deliver that curriculum. Sometimes that involves working with instructional designers. Some that I work with are highly extroverted, and their open office space is conducive to that; they love it! They like to chat nonstop, throughout the day. They play music as part and parcel of their day (not through earbuds but through speakers). For some, these behaviors in the open office really are a good thing as they spark creativity and reinforce a team spirit, that we’re all in this together.

But when we’re in the space together, some haven’t picked up on cues like me wearing earbuds = me trying to drown out noise. Or me not participating in the daylong social chatter means that I’m trying to work through something. My cues become increasingly LESS subtle “hints” and outright direct convos as a project goes on. Up to and including openly sharing the official workplace policies telling us we’re supposed to use headphones for music. I’ve still had to resort to a “stop” sign for my desk (a table, really, with no dividers) that says “please don’t disturb.” And even THAT sometimes doesn’t get respected.

But I’m not unique. And I personally don’t think the struggle is limited to introverts. I think even extroverts can struggle with getting their stuff done in an open office environment. In fact, looky here. It looks like even real data show that open offices squander productivity.

So what are your strategies for getting stuff done and surviving (thriving even??) in an open office?


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