My gut reaction: Abandon mission, eject immediately.
I definitely enjoy my job — and I love the people I work with. So why does walking into the office each morning give me the trembles? As an introvert, you might have a good idea of the answer: It’s not the role or the thought of upcoming deadlines that casts dread into my heart.
It’s the office itself.
Open-plan offices are typically crowded. They’re noisy, and people can appear seemingly out of nowhere to pick your brain or ask you about your weekend. They’re also pretty much ubiquitous at this point; if you’ve chosen an office-based career, then you’re likely to sit shoulder-to-shoulder in a room of your peers.
As someone who sinks deep into the wormhole of their own thoughts, being suddenly yanked out by a colleague’s conversation is incredibly jarring. It also enhances that imposter syndrome that a lot of us share: If somebody fires a question to me over email, I have time to let it settle in and come back with a reasoned response. If they suddenly pop up and ask me face-to-face, then I’m just as likely to squawk incomprehensibly as to actually say anything useful.
Still, I do love my job, and I know my career is one that’s likely to send plenty more open-plan offices my way in the future. So instead of following my gut reaction (abandon mission, eject immediately), I’ve been trying out different strategies for surviving as one of the office introverts (we’re not like cats, please don’t pet us). I hope these strategies will be useful to you, although fair warning that some will rely on having an understanding boss.
How Introverts Can Survive the Open-Plan Office
They don’t need to be the most expensive pair on the shelf. But a decent pair of headphones that can cancel out some of the background noise is an essential power-up for your inventory. From my experience, I’d say that it’s even something worth saving for if you can’t squeeze it from your current budget. You can pump out music, white noise, or whatever takes your fancy — I’ve even known people to simply wear their headphones at work with no sound coming out at all.
Aside from the obvious benefit of blocking unwanted noise, headphones are a brilliant indication to your coworkers that you’re deep in work and need some time without distraction (at least in theory). Worried about seeming rude? It’s true that some offices are full of sociable people who don’t tend to block themselves off, but in that case, a simple statement along the lines of, “I’ve really got to get my head down for this next project, so I’m just going to put my headphones on for a while!” should do the trick. It’s not rude to set a firm but polite boundary that allows you to do your work.
Have the Right Conversation With Your Manager
The right conversation is not one where you complain or state that you need special accommodations because you have an introverted personality. These things are likely to put your manager on the defensive.
Instead, start an open conversation that focuses on your strengths. Perhaps it’s the fact that you’re at your best when you’re able to focus on concentrated work. Ask if there’s any way you can get out of the office for set periods of time — many companies are coming around to the idea of employees working from home one or two days a week, and this has been an absolute revolution for me.
When I’m at home, I can manage the communication that I have with colleagues far more effectively. The result is not just better peace of mind, but better productivity, too.
If you can’t work from home, there may be another compromise, such as blocking out an hour or two in your calendar each day as “do not disturb” time, when your schedule is marked as busy and you can sit quietly at your desk. This was a tactic of one of my introverted colleagues at a previous workplace, and it proved so effective that half the office adopted the strategy (sometimes extroverts need their thinking space too!). If there are break-out booths in your office building, consider commandeering one so you can spend your “do not disturb time” away from the crowd.
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Eat Lunch Alone
Thankfully, in my current office, it is very much the culture for people to do their own thing at lunch time — whether that means eating at the desk while catching up on life admin, going for a short walk, or popping to the park for a quiet read.
This hasn’t been the case in every office I’ve experienced, though, and if the culture on your team is to lunch together in the kitchen, it can be difficult to feel like the only person not participating. As an introvert, it’s easy to worry that coworkers will think you’re cold or aloof, and rejecting socializing at lunch can reinforce that concern.
Once again, this is an opportunity for compromise. In previous offices that I’ve shared with more sociable coworkers, I’ve made a point of joining the gang for lunch on a Friday and maybe one other day each week. Showing up some of the time has made it much easier to make my excuses the rest of the week — and often the truth (I need to step out for a while and clear my head!) is excuse enough.
After a few days exploring the surrounding areas of my current office, I found the perfect lunch spot: a bench outside a church, away from the main streets where I’d likely bump into people I know. Any day that I can, I take a book or a notepad and spend at least 20 minutes doing my own little thing. It works. On the days that I don’t manage to get out, I notice a marked difference, with energy levels plummeting by 3 p.m.
Take Advantage of Team Messaging Systems
Not every office will make use of an instant messaging platform like Slack or Skype, but if yours does, they’re an incredible way to manage communication more effectively, so long as you use them wisely.
One problem for introverted office workers is the fact that colleagues and managers might feel as though you’re not contributing to face-to-face discussions as much as others. This can leave you out of projects that are well within your abilities, or simply put a black mark against your name in the minds of more senior workers.
Enter instant messaging. Jumping into group conversations via IM is much less daunting than contributing to a group conversation, as you have time to get your thoughts in order. Other people will notice your contributions and stop thinking of you as someone who doesn’t speak up or get involved.
The caveat here is these tools can also become one more source of distraction, with constant notifications pinging as you try to work. Consider muting notifications and checking in once an hour, or setting aside blocks of time when you close your messaging platform down — as you might do with emails.
Don’t Give Away Too Much
For me, the best results have come from two strategies: making compromises and setting clear expectations. It seems as though we’re a long way off from offices that really help introverts to thrive, so you do need to give a little. But a good compromise is one where both parties feel the benefit: Don’t give away too much.
And try to ensure that your manager understands your working style, and what strategies help you to get the best results, so they know which projects or tasks you’re likely to thrive at.
If you’re an introvert working in an open-plan office, how do you survive? Let me know in the comments below.