The challenges of an open office environment

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Q: I work in an open office environment.   I must be extra sensitive to noise.  Some of my co-workers are loud.  Some hum while doing their work.  One guy blows bubbles with his bubble gum, and then they pop loudly. There is another co-worker who sings.

A: Open offices have been trending for a while.  However, COVID may have had many employers re-think this concept.  I think many employers thought this would 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 flip flop flapping and the other distractions.
  2. Plants.  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 employers allow employees to sign up for conference rooms to be able to focus on work.  Some employees also escape to a quiet area of the cafeteria, when it is not busy.
  8. Some companies designate a few tables as “collaboration tables,” where employees can sit with others and converse about projects or deliverables.
  9. Lastly, especially with what we have learned with the pandemic, 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.

Good luck.  I hope some of these tips give you the quiet you need to be successful.

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.