Open plan offices are now the norm in most workplaces. Not even the CEO of one investment bank I worked for was immune (albeit he had a more salubrious workstation which offered more privacy).
The belief was that by having little/no partitions in a space that was shared by everyone was not only a great leveller, it facilitated social interaction allowing people to work collaboratively.
But open plan setups can have the opposite effect for some of us.
Instead of becoming more engaged with our colleagues, the constant noise and movement can overwhelm an introvert, leaving them unable to focus on the task at hand, or constantly being distracted and pulled away to consult on other projects.
Highly sensitive to their surroundings, introverts can end up scattered, exhausted, and anxious if they’re exposed to such stressful environments for a sustained period, putting them at risk of stress related health issues.
With open plan layouts unlikely to disappear anytime soon, what can you do if you’re not coping?
Short of bringing in gyprock and plaster to build your own cone of silence, there are ways to work with, rather than against, your introverted disposition.
1) Take lunch and breaks away from the office
Go for a walk, sit quietly in a park, have lunch out, or do your mid-morning coffee run on your own. Don’t underestimate the power of having a 15 minute reprieve from a buzzing office.
While there’s often pressure to eat at your desk or spend your break with colleagues, it’s important that you respect your need to replenish so you can work at your best.
But remember to join your colleagues occasionally - it’s important to build connections with your co-workers, and show solidarity when a team lunch is organised.
Co-worker relationships - and giving your colleagues the opportunity to get to know YOU - are critical to their understanding of your need for space when you’re chest-deep in a complex assignment, and they’re more likely to have your back if you’re trying to speak up.
2) Personalise your workspace
Even if you’re stuck with low cubicle walls, things like a coat hanger beside your desk or a strategically place pot plant on your drawers can provide you with enough privacy and define an area you can work without distraction.
Not only does having greenery around you have a calming effect, a plant is much less obvious than building an actual wall between you and your colleagues.
If you have the space, a tall floor plant or bookshelf will also do the trick
If none of those are an option, have a chat to your boss or office manager to see whether you can move to a more discrete spot, but sell it as an opportunity which benefits them i.e. the move will make you more productive. Being in a less trafficked area may be just the reprieve you need.
3) Work from home, become an early bird and be clever with your schedule.
If you’re able to be flexible with your work hours, coming in early (7am vs. most places where it’s 9 to 5) will give you several hours of quiet before the crowds start pouring in.
And start taking notice the rhythm of your office - what days and what times are quieter or when more people are out. Then you can more strategically plan your days by doing your complex “thinking” projects when it’s quiet. You could also use this time to give yourself some breathing space and use it as down time so you can recharge.
Or even better, If your workplace allows, negotiate to see whether you can work from home one day a fortnight or once a week. It’s still important that you’re seen in the office so keep working from home at a minimum, but a day’s reprieve from a busy office will do wonders to help you recharge. And there’s nothing like being able to skip the commute and working in your PJ’s.
4) Have a meeting with yourself
Another trick I used was booking a small meeting room when I desperately needed quiet to work (the person who wisely put a boisterous marketing team next to an analyst trying to manage billions of dollars of high risk assets should be shot).
For an hour or two, I would have blissful peace. If someone burst in, I’d pretend I was about to dial into a conference call.
Most co-workers assume that whatever you’re working on is confidential and demands privacy (why else would you be in that room?) and are usually respectful enough to leave you alone without question.
5) Headphones are a godsend
There are sometimes that we need to block out the sound around us to concentrate (and it’s not just talking, think tea slurping, chip crunching, snotty noses).
It’s difficult to diplomatically tell our neighbours to stop eating or drinking (or snorting).
So not only do headphones allow us to subdue our surroundings so we can focus, headphones have the added bonus of signalling to people that it’s not the best time to disturb you.
But don’t resort to wearing them full time - you don’t want to paint yourself as bizarrely antisocial and kill any career aspirations at the same time. We want to be available enough to our colleagues to be considered a team player and not alienate those around us.
And most important of all - don’t feel guilty.
Introversion has gifted you many talents and skills, so it’s worth finding ways to allow you to best use those skills, rather than fight against it.
Having to modify certain working environment is not a shortcoming, it’s essential for self-preservation or your risk letting your health go to shit with stress related illness.
By carving out ways to steel snippets of space, time and quiet for yourself gives you the space to breathe. Your relationship with your colleagues will be better for it, and you’ll ll enjoy your work life so much more.