5 Tips to Save Your Sanity in an Open Office

Scoring my introvert dream job was eclipsed by a flawed environment of incessant noise, constant visual distractions, and no privacy.

After graduating college, I took a job that was just too much for this anxious, highly sensitive introvert. Dealing with round the clock staffing issues and constant client turmoil left me burnt out and on edge.

Thankfully, I was in a position to make a “professional U-turn” of sorts. I did a little research on jobs suited to my personality, and soon enough, landed a job in records management. It seemed fairly simple, just a little data entry here, inventory cataloging there, and best of all — the paper would not talk back.

So, what could possibly go wrong in this seemingly introvert-ideal job? Well, for starters, I had failed to account for working with a TEAM of records managers — all much more extroverted than me. I was also unaware of the apparent industry standard for open concept offices. Scoring my dream job had now been eclipsed by a flawed environment of noisy scanners, incessant typing, an alarming number of personal calls and conversations at work, the constant visual distractions due to the lack of walls, and the pervading smell of reheated fish tacos every Thursday because of that coworker.

I was at a loss for what to do next. 

“Persevere,” the little guiding voice in my head told me. So, as a devoted advocate for cultivating a life and career you truly love, I did.  After all, we spend the majority of our days — and lives — at work.

So, what can you do if you are lucky enough to have your dream job, but the office environment is hell on earth? Well, if my professional experience has taught me anything, it’s that each workplace can be as dynamic as the people working in them. You just have to know the right ways to add a little comfort, minimize distractions, and maximize your productivity.

5 Tips from an Open Office Survivor

1. Set the mood.

Whatever your personal flair is or the office layout you are working with, it’s important that you feel comfortable at work. As a homebody, that means I must bring a little bit of home to my office. For example, if you get cold — have a blanket on hand. If you enjoy plants, make sure your desk has just the right number of potted friends. Other comfort items could include framed pictures, your favorite mug, a stash of yummy snacks, or a sunlight lamp for that desperately needed extra dose of vitamin D.

2. Cut through audible distractions.

Whether you enjoy rocking out to your favorite hits, blasting the best Broadway tunes, or relaxing to a cultivated playlist, headphones are a must. Everyone has their own style, but my personal favorite is any noise-cancelling, over-the-ear headphones for two reasons:

a) after a long day, they tend to cause less ear fatigue than the earbud alternative; and

b) there is no mistaking their presence.

In a “Headphones = Do Not Bother” culture (at least in theory), you do not even have to be listening to music to get some peace and quiet — hence the bonus feature of headphones with a noise cancellation setting.

3. Take breaks.

All too often we take breaks at our desk, cut our breaks short, or forget to take them at all. This practice can be detrimental for introverts working in an open concept office. Whether you need to set a timer or do what I do and block out break time on your calendar — setting a reminder is the first step to a more well-balanced mind. 

Next you can decide what healthy activity you would like to do on your break. Some of my personal favorites are going for a walk, finding a quiet corner to read a book, and even just closing my eyes for a few minutes of meditation. Whatever you do, it’s important to give your mind frequent breaks away from the constant distractions of the office.

4. Activate your other senses. 

When the office audio levels seem deafening and you just cannot focus, try concentrating on one of your other senses. Grab your handy desk mug and fill it with your favorite — work appropriate — drink, then take a moment to close your eyes and focus only on your sense of taste. The act of focusing on just one thing amidst the clamor can realign your thoughts, and when finished, will give you a nice little productivity boost.

I have also found essential oils to be a lifesaver in these moments. If you have not caught on to this particular craze, now may be the time to do a little internet investigation. Then sit back and relax as you treat yourself to an environment-changing aroma. Whether you diffuse or roll-on, have a couple stress relief scents on hand to take your mind off the office noise.

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5. Talk about workplace needs and expectations.

I’m not encouraging a stand-on-your-chair widespread declaration, but having conversations about your ideal work environment can be very enlightening for everyone involved. You do not even have to have these conversations face-to-face — because there is probably nothing you would like to do less. In whatever way you choose, your officemates may have never been given the chance to collaborate on individual workplace preferences and could welcome an opportunity to learn about you and each other. At the very least, you could initiate an office-wide conversation about boundaries and healthy office expectations.

Advocate for Change

Every job will be different — so when in doubt about any of the above suggestions, just ask your boss first. However, it’s important to know that open offices do not have to be an introvert’s undoing. We are a lot stronger and more resilient than many give us credit for, and even you can thrive with my survival tips. 

I do have one bonus tip as well: You are a prime candidate to advocate for change. After gathering up the courage to talk to your coworkers about your preferences — emails are great, just no passive-aggressive sticky notes, please — move on to your boss or the HR department! If you have a couple work environment changes in mind, let someone in a position to make the changes know about them. Your great ideas could actually spur change not only for yourself, but maybe for the other introverts in your office as well.

Introvert, if you work in an open office, how do you survive? Let me know in the comments below.

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