If you type “open-office floor plans” into Google, you might be surprised by the headlines that pop up: “The Post-Cubicle Office and Its Discontents”; “Why Agencies Should Rethink the Open-Office Plan”; “The Open-Office Trap”; “The Open-Office Trend Is Destroying the Workplace.”
The open-office floor plan—once heralded as the future of productivity, a hub of collaborative creativity where ideas would flow freely among colleagues no longer isolated by walls—has seen a backlash in recent years. A 2013 study titled “Workspace Satisfaction: The Privacy-Communication Trade-off in Open-Plan Offices” backed up what many disgruntled employees had already discovered: employees in open-office situations suffer from the lack of privacy and experience an increase in distractions.
Yet given the benefits of open-office spaces to employers—lower costs and maximized space—the open office isn’t going away anytime soon. So how can you survive and even thrive in an open office without losing your mind?
I chatted with Jason Feifer, whose 2013 take-no-prisoners piece, “Offices for All! Why Open-Office Layouts Are Bad for Employees, Bosses, and Productivity,” was one of the most-read articles Fast Company published that year. Currently the editor in chief of Entrepreneur (with an office of his own, by the way), Feifer shared some coping tips to tide you over as you await office nirvana.
Use Messenger Apps to Talk
One of the biggest distractions of open offices? Every time your colleagues engage in conversation around you, it can interfere with your ability to concentrate. “The open office should really limit you to having ‘need’ conversations,” Feifer says. “If I need to ask somebody a question, I will ask them, knowing that it will interrupt the workflow of everybody around me.”
To avoid these disruptions, encourage your office to take advantage of online messenger systems such as Skype, Slack, or Gchat.
Without leaving your desk (or uttering a word), you can let a colleague know you’d like to talk without lurking behind them and disrupting their work (and probably their neighbor’s as well).
Conversely, when a colleague messages you, when to respond is up to you, which takes the pressure off. You can dash off an answer to a quick query or respond on your own terms—“Sure, give me 20 minutes.”
You can also take advantage of an app’s status indicators (i.e., “Busy,” “Away”) and/or privacy controls to signal to colleagues that you’re otherwise occupied at the moment. In addition, messenger apps can provide privacy that a face-to-face conversation in a room full of coworkers can’t.
Without an office door to shut, headphones are your main means to drown out the din of open-office chatter, keyboard clacking, or the dreaded one-sided phone call, which even science has proven is the most annoying thing in the world.
Music can be a great way to get through the day, but also consider podcasts, audiobooks, white noise, or soothing ocean sounds, depending on what helps you focus best. You don’t even have to be plugged in to reap some of the benefits of headphones—sporting them is a visual “do not disturb” sign to coworkers.
If your office allows it, take advantage of working off-site a few days a week. Whether you’re working from home, at a library, or at a coffee shop, you might find you’re more productive in an environment of your own choosing, free of office distractions.
If working off-site isn’t an option, seek out other places in the office that could offer respite from the communal pen, such as a conference room or lounge. When Feifer worked in an open-plan office, he had colleagues who still had rooms of their own. “If one of them was out sick for the day, I would just hijack an office,” he says.
Get Creative about Collaborating
Open offices were supposed to enhance creative collaboration. Without office walls to separate colleagues and conversations, ideas were supposed to serendipitously blossom from the fertile floor plan, enabled by spur-of-the-moment repartee. Feifer calls this “a fiction perpetrated by people who advocate for open offices and presumably don’t work in one themselves.”
“As counterintuitive as it may seem, an environment in which everybody is squished together into one space is not conducive to collaboration. No one wants to collaborate because everybody is on top of each other all the time.”
In most workplaces creative conversations are still crucial—they just happen elsewhere. “You need to have space to have those aimless personal conversations,” Fiefer says—but instead of a bullpen, think conference rooms, the elevator, or a walk. Take advantage of socializing—whether it’s in the kitchen, at the water cooler, or during a moment when the whole office collectively takes a break—to come up with ideas. Focus on your actual work when you’re at your desk.
Be Mindful of Your Habits
Since the open office isn’t going anywhere, your wisest strategy might be to adapt. One of the first steps you can take is to be more mindful of your working habits. Start to notice what interruptions or annoyances bother you the most. Is it noise? Colleagues dropping by? Once you pinpoint your biggest peeve, you can start to work to eliminate or lessen it and take care of your own needs instead of being constantly irritated. Feifer taped temporary cardboard “walls” to his desk to eliminate visual distractions.
On the flip side, start to notice which of your habits might annoy your colleagues. Do you tap your pencil while deep in thought? Cough incessantly? Whistle while you work? Now that everyone’s sharing one space, you have a duty to be a thoughtful coworker.
Feifer never came around to open offices, but he says, “If you can find a way to create an office culture where everybody is aware of everybody else’s needs—where people can toggle back and forth as a group between being social and being silent—then you’re at least a step in the right direction.”
Kjerstin Johnson is a writer and editor who lives in Portland, Oregon.