Open office environments, they look great, but…

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Q: My company is moving to an open office concept.  I am easily distracted and feel like this will really hinder my performance.  We have many noisy people in our offices, including gum snappers, flip flop flappers, whistlers and hummers, those who talk out loud and overall boisterous laughers.  I am really nervous about this concept.  How do people survive?  I want my cubicle back and I haven’t even lost it yet!

A: Open offices have their strengths and weaknesses, like everything.  The goal is to increase collaboration between employees, but they also allow for more interruptions.  There is some data to suggest that open offices aren’t promising what many expected them to deliver.  Sure, they look great but employees seem to be emailing or instant messaging more often while working in an open office.  Additionally, many employees feel like there are too many distractions and their ability to focus and concentrate are impacted.

Being an extrovert, I struggle with open offices too.  I seem to find an excuse to chat every time someone walks by.  However, I have found some tips and tricks that seem to work.

  1. Earbuds or noise-cancelling headphones. When I work in an open office, I use earbuds with no music playing. I find that earbuds send the message that I can’t be easily interrupted.  Head phones can also drown out the gum snappers and the other distractions.
  2. Plants can create privacy.  I have seen the tall ones being used quite effectively.  One of my clients calls their wall of plants “the green monster.”  It is not quite like Fenway, but it does create a quiet little corner of their open office concept.
  3. Arrive early, stay late or eat your lunch at unusual times. In short, try to make the most of the quieter times in your office.
  4. Low traffic corners are preferred locations. I know a few folks who use the corners of the rooms, which tend to have less activity than the center of the rooms.
  5. Avoid walkways and doors if you have a choice — too much activity.
  6. Some companies allow an “interruption stoplight,” which is a signal allowing the employee to permit interruptions or limit them. One of our clients uses a simple red sheet of paper affixed to the back of a laptop, which means that the employee is in “focused” mode and should not be interrupted.
  7. Some companies designate a few tables as “collaboration tables,” where employees can sit with others and converse about projects or deliverables.
  8. Lastly, some companies allow employees to work from a remote location on a regular basis, maybe it is a home office, a kitchen table or a library. Any of these can give an employee the quiet time to focus on a project or a time-sensitive deadline.

I have found companies who set “ground rules” in advance, often have fewer concerns about open offices.

Pattie Hunt Sinacole is a human resources expert and works for First Beacon Group in Hopkinton, an HR consulting firm. She contributes weekly to Jobs and the Boston Sunday Globe Money & Careers section.