One of the most difficult things about being an introvert in tech is the open office plan. It’s taxing to have to mentally dim the conversations, the comings and goings of others, the Slack messages, the texts and calls pinging phones throughout the office, the office pets, and the demanding coffee and printing machines that routinely require human attention. For introverts, being on medium-strength social awareness for 8-10 hours straight is exhausting. There are plenty of studies demonstrating the failures – mostly in terms of lost concentration and job satisfaction – of open offices.
As Nikil Saval put it in his 2014 booked Cubed: A secret history of the workplace, “the New Economy offices were infamously some of the most intense workplaces…the work rhythms were largely unscheduled — and that was the danger.” The open office plan was supposed to deliver more ingenious innovations and nimble, harmonious teams realizing the heights of their imaginative potential unshackled from a hierarchical management structure and all the cubicles that went with it. Instead, it has been derailing tens of thousands of trains of thought daily since its inception in 1994.
On the plus side, in harmonious open offices, there’s a chance to get to know your coworkers almost as well as you know your family members. This closeness can also imply an emotional – hopefully reciprocal – investment in their well-being that draws you out of yourself and into their daily ups and downs. My current colleagues are smart, diligent, (mostly) introverts who I look forward to seeing on Monday mornings.
But I’m still an introvert and feel more drained at the end of the week than I did when I had an enclosed office. It has nothing to do with office conflict – my previous office had far more conflict than my current office. It’s about always having to be socially “on” because I am always within sight and earshot of people whose opinions matter greatly to me.
Here’s my advice for how to shape your space, control your time, and possibly preserve the collective sanity of your office:
Acoustical isolation is the first step to avoiding interruptions. Bigger may be better, if only because giant ear muffs are much easier to see than earbuds. Develop some office culture around headphones – when someone has them on, agree not to interrupt unless it’s urgent. But also know that not everyone can wear headphones comfortably. Mine hurt after an hour or two. Your office should be quiet enough that wearing headphones is not a requirement.
Listen to music as an office: This is an advanced recommendation. I’ve found that offices with music on are far easier to concentrate in than “quiet” offices because the music can drown out some of the distracting noises. Protip: the coordination costs of choosing music together may outweigh the benefits.
Construct a cave with screens for visual privacy. Ask for more than one extra screen if need be. Your work requires serious screen real estate for maximal productivity. Try not to mention that it’s very distracting to see the person across from you picking their nose or stroking their hipster mustache.
Ward off interruptions by being deliberately social at predictable intervals. Say hello to everyone upon arrival. Check in with everyone who reports to you or to whom you report. Check in again mid-day and make sure to sync about half an hour before people start to leave. If your colleagues know you’ll check in regularly, they may be more likely to hold their questions for your rounds.
When someone asks, “Can I talk to you for a minute?” give a time limit in your answer: “Yes, I can take a one minute break.” If they don’t ask, but jump right in with a “Hey, you know that X project…?” say, “Sure, I can take a short mental break and get you what you need.” This may not immediately curtail the interruptions, but it is a gentle conversational speed bump that may cause people to think twice before they interrupt with non-urgent questions.
Schedule blocks of time on your calendar to deflect meeting requests. This may have nothing to do with the open office plan, but it’s a good introvert trick. I declared meeting-free-Wednesdays so I have a day to work on long-focus projects and writing. I’m less frustrated with interruptions on the other days of the week because I know I have a blissfully uninterrupted day coming my way. If you can’t swing an entire day, take a couple hours to yourself every morning or afternoon.
If it works for you – and be honest with yourself or this one will backfire – work from home during your meeting free blocks. Do this only if you have a separate space to work in which you know you won’t be interrupted by your kids, cat, roomba, all the food in the kitchen, video games, napping, birdwatching, doing the laundry, etc.
The better you get to know your colleagues, the better you will be at reading their body language and empathizing with their deadlines and periods of concentration. It’s easier to avoid being that person who interrupts at the worst time if you know your colleagues well.
Remote workers and text-only communication: If you’re working remotely and can’t see your colleagues, phrase your chats to be considerate of the fact that you’re probably interrupting them. See how, “Hey, can you send that sales spreadsheet from last quarter? Thx.” is more jarring than, “I’ll be working on the market report for the rest of the afternoon. It’s not urgent, but when you get a chance, can you send me that sales spreadsheet from last quarter?”
Make an effort to let your colleagues know you. It may be tough to break out of yourself and volunteer that you’re rushing to meet a deadline or need some quiet time to focus, but you may be pleasantly surprised that doing so allows you to get back into your shell with less anxiety about being interrupted.
These last two will help all of us be the colleagues we want to have.
Treat the open office like a movie theatre. Nobody wants to hear your phone ring and they definitely don’t want to hear a one-sided conversation.
I had a colleague once who whisper sang all the lyrics to the heavy metal songs he was listening to on his headphones. It nearly drove me to violence. When I asked him if he knew he was doing it, he said he was only vaguely aware and couldn’t promise he would be able to stop. The moral of this story: Check your verbal tics before your colleague stabs you in the arm with an iPen. So you’re not a singer. Are you making repetitive noises tapping, flicking, smacking, scratching, burping, vigorously rubbing your nose, or typing with the vengeance of an angry teen? If you find you have any of these habits, for the love of office harmony: stop. Immediately.
If you have other tips for protecting your introverted self in an open office plan or being the open office colleague you want to have, please share them here.
If you have dark tales about open office manners gone wrong, I’m sure we can all learn from those, too. Please don’t use actual names of companies or colleagues unless they have given you consent to do so.