How To Survive An Open Office Plan

Sometimes worker bees need a little mental break.

Author by John Devore
Credit: Twisha Patni

A recent Harvard Business School study found that open office plans decrease face-to-face interactions by up to 72%. This statistic made me feel a little better because I frequently spend 20 minutes or so of my workday sitting in the stairwell, resting my brain and steering clear of other people.

Like many Americans, I work in an open office plan. A bright, airy environment where everyone sits out in the open. My boss sits directly behind me and I’m pretty certain he’s reading this sentence as I type it.

I imagine, years and years ago, some office manager decided that actual physical walls are also metaphors and that forcing people to work without any barriers would foster communication. That visionary office manager then tore down all the walls and patiently waited for a professional social utopia to bloom. It is not a bad idea: any attempt to encourage collaboration is positive. But fast-forward to today: I try not to make eye contact with my co-workers.

That almost seven out of ten workers are also trying to avoid direct human interaction may suggest that this experiment in enforced corporate communal bonhomie has some kinks to work out.

Keep in mind almost 70% of offices had workspaces with no walls or partitions in 2017. I don’t have the numbers for 2018 but I’m confident—and this is just me making a wild guess—that 110% of offices have no walls or partitions. Eventually, if this trend continues, we’ll all be working at one giant desk. A mega-desk.

I thought, honestly, that I was the only person who found working in a crowd overwhelming. Which is why I’m always looking for ways to be alone and recharge during the workday. I assumed, as I often do, that I’m just a maladjusted anti-social Gollum who cringes whenever two or more coworkers congregate near me to loudly discuss quarterly strategies or weekend getaways. I know better now: the majority of my colleagues are likewise weirded out by the lack of physical boundaries at the place where we toil for 40 (or more) hours a week.

I am not ashamed that I need a little physical and mental rest in the middle of my busy day. Taking time for yourself is just good all-around advice. Like, a nice 45-minute break where one can sleep, or meditate, or veg out and scroll Instagram would be a blessing that would probably increase efficiency. You know, if you think about it, a mattress can also be used as a comfortable wall.

The popular messaging service Slack doesn’t help things either. Most open offices I’ve worked aren’t always riots of creative cooperation. They’re usually deathly quiet, with momentary exceptions, everyone furiously typing messages into Slack. Like, I can use Slack in a closet. I don’t need the company of dozens to chose an emoticon-based response to a work request.

So here’s how I survive open office plans:

I go for walks. I sometimes just take a walk around the block. Other times I go to a nearby coffee shop and just sit there for a little while. If you ever see a single person dressed semi-professionally just sitting in a coffee shop in the middle of the afternoon you can bet they’re enjoying a well-deserved break from their open office. I also work next to a bookstore and a bank: I wander the isles of the former reading the book jacket covers of best sellers so I can pretend I read them later and I use the chained pens at the bank for quick games of Soduku.

 A short, and brisk walk, can really be restorative. And if I didn’t take them, and frequently, I would probably have quit my job and started a homemade sauerkraut business in the country by now.

At my desk, I have a pair of expensive noise-canceling headphones I cheekily refer to as my “office door.” If you see the headphones on I am “in my office so don’t bother me.” It’s a funny joke my coworkers love.

Another trick I’ve learned is to book conference rooms for meetings with important sounding titles like “Cross-Functional Project Priority Alignment Integration” and then just invite myself. I can get so much done in an hour surrounded by four walls.

One technique I have personally pioneered I call “hiding in plain sight.” I will, occasionally, walk around the office holding my laptop computer like a pizza box. When people see me walking around with my laptop they think “Wow he’s so busy he literally has to work while he’s walking!” No one bothers me when I’m walking around with my laptop. I may, here and there, tip-tap the keyboard with the fingers that aren’t being used just to make sure co-workers think I’m making swift decisions on-the-go.

And, as I previously mentioned, I will disappear into the stairwell, where I will proceed to sit and relax and take a few minutes to be alone.

I know the downsides to offices, too. Once,  long ago, I had a small office where I would often times close the door and then sit against the door for a nap. I do miss having an office but I also have to admit an office that is nothing but closed doors can feel very unfriendly. I guess it’s a bit of a no-win situation.

So until a solution is discovered I will continue to, on occasion, find ways to be alone while I’m at work. Maybe in the distant future, we will all work in orb-like pods that can open and close like slick futuristic cabbages, which reminds me: I really should start an artisanal sauerkraut business.

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