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Open Office Introvert
An office with people working on their computers.

Rip down those cubicle and office walls, and let the brainstorming begin!

For better or worse, open office designs are all the rage. Meant to increase casual collaboration and work efficiency while decreasing overhead, it’s likely your organization or nonprofit may be ready to embrace—or has already embraced—the open office plan. For the extroverted this can be an exciting and welcome change but for their introverted colleagues, it’s an absolute nightmare.

Survival in this setup is all about creating a semblance of privacy out in the open.

This lack of privacy can be a tough change, but introverts may feel especially ill-at-ease at the thought of an on-demand brainstorm and collaborative atmosphere—the constant noise and distractions make it hard to relax, focus, and get things accomplished. The introverted worker gets most of her best work done when left alone—preferably with a closed door. So, if that’s no longer an option, how can we create a functional and focused workspace in the bullpen?

Can you hear me now?

The most common complaint in an open office is noise. So be prepared to address this head on by creating a strategic anti-noise focus plan—this may involve ear plugs, ear buds, and a well-planned playlist for your work week. If your boss is willing to listen, see if they have the budget to invest in noise cancelling headphones for the auditory-sensitive office employee.

Think outside the bud as well. It can be annoying to have earphones stuck in your ears all day so try to limit them to periods of the day where you absolutely need focus. If there are daily tasks that may not require total silence, remove the headphones and embrace limited amounts of ambient chaos.

Build boundaries

After the internal restructuring, you may face one of a variety of office floor plans, the extreme of which is a large office desk shared by all. Survival in this setup is all about creating a semblance of privacy out in the open.

Visible boundaries

If you are now situated at an open table, or a hot desk you may feel awkward and on display. Even though you feel like building a fort, there’s probably not much you can do about the physical setup if your once-quiet space has transformed into a seat at communal table. Here are some helpful modifications:

  • If possible, reach out to the powers that be during the planning phase and request they consider floor plan adjustments that include quiet rooms, accessible conference spaces, flexible spaces that can be altered to create a quiet nook away from the main chaos.
  • See if you can request a corner spot, or one where your back is to a wall. You may also be able to suggest inexpensive portable dividers. It’s always worth mentioning that the main reason for the request is because you feel that you do your best work in quiet spaces.
  • If your office has become a cubicle, inquire if you can put up a curtain, or ask for a sliding cube door.

Invisible boundaries

No matter your set up, without a door, you’re sure to get unwelcome interruptions during your work day. To manage these distractions, maintain personal space by inventing invisible boundaries:

  • Have a polite, consistent response at the ready for overly-friendly coworkers when they stop by or hover. If you give this response enough, they’ll know to stay away but won’t have their feelings hurt. If you want to go the passive route, you can make a polite “Do Not Disturb” sign.
  • The noise will still be an issue even with partial walls. Utilize the previously mentioned suggestions to create your own noise barriers, and meet with human resources about managing noise levels at certain times of day.

If none of these work for you, depending on your position and relationship with your manager, see if you can work odd hours or work off-site one or two days a week.

Create a balance

Your office space is a work sanctuary and you should try to keep it as low-stress, peaceful, and productive as possible. To stay calm in the chaos, you may have to simply accept that it is now a part of your world and attempt to adapt.

In review

If you’re struggling to deal with an open office situation:

  1. Create noise barriers.
  2. Do your best to carve out personal space—from thin air!
  3. Try to stay positive while you communicate your needs.

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About the Author | With a background in the performing arts and journalism, Caroline Rodriguez understands the often motley course of career change. She’s been a reporter at NPR, a music teacher, and co-managed a yoga resort in in northern Michigan. Her passions include helping at-risk youth, supporting women’s rights, and encouraging girls to study science.

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