My work is going to an open office plan that I’ll probably hate. How should I cope?

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My work is going to an open office plan that I'll probably hate. How should I cope?
Looks cool, doesn’t work like you’d think
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash
My employer is seriously considering moving our staff from individual cubicles with five-foot high walls, to one of the following options:

1. a hot-desking environment where we have a half-sized locker for coats and belongings and where we can have no personal items at the desks or…

2. shared cubicles with two-foot high clear dividers where you would be literally sitting back-to-back with another co-worker.

They keep saying it’s so we can “collaborate” more, meanwhile, we are government social workers who meet frequently with clients. We work under strict legislative requirements, so there really isn’t much to “collaborate” on. We will have to meet clients in a separate space, which will be set up like our current cubicles. Seems like a waste creating extra work spaces, when what we have works well. So far our opinions are going unheard.

I am a serious introvert, and both options are unacceptable to me. I have panic attacks just thinking about it. If we end up in shared cubicles, though, what suggestions do people have (photos or links would be awesome!), that would create more privacy and comfort for me? – T

Open workspaces really became all the rage in the post-dot com boom. It seemed really trendy and collaborative at the time. But now there is so much research coming out that supports the idea that less private workspaces and open office plans actually kill productivity, force people to use headphones to block out noise, and encourage workers to work from home if it’s allowed. The science of it all proved that workers had less face time and spent more time emailing and IMing instead of interacting face-to-face. It was the exact opposite of the intended affect and lowered morale, especially among those like you and I who are more introverted. Here are a few resources to have on hand:

The solution is complicated if concerns have been raised and ignored, but all hope isn’t lost. If you present a few of these case studies, perhaps as a group, it could sway their opinion on the solution. And if not, perhaps there is a compromise wherein the private spaces are plentiful so that you can retreat there when you need to really get things done or need time to work alone.

And if all else fails, then it’s probably time to invest in a good set of noise-cancelling headphones and maybe a chair sign that indicates you’re on an important call or working on a deadline-driven project? Let’s see what other suggestions the readers have…

If you were stuck in an open office environment, what would you do to ensure both your sanity and your productivity are preserved?

Comments on My work is going to an open office plan that I’ll probably hate. How should I cope?

  1. I both have ADHD and work with confidential information a lot of the time (I’m in HR) so open office plans are an absolute nightmare.

    If your office insists on switching, advocate for quiet work cubicles so you can take your laptop and work somewhere quiet and not visually distracting as much as possible. If you’re going to have that private meeting space for clients, maybe you can work there a lot of the time?

    I don’t have noise cancelling headphones but any that muffle combined with a white noise generator will help a lot. I get easily distracted by music and can’t do most work that isn’t straight data entry while listening to music. I use, which is free to use through any browser.

    Good luck <3

  2. If you’re having panic attacks, are these part of a medical condition like general anxiety disorder or panic disorder? In general, it’s not common to have panic attacks about something you don’t like or don’t want to do – anxiety, sure, but a full-blown panic attack, not so much. If you haven’t been diagnosed with one yet, do you think a doctor would diagnose you with something like that? If so, if you live in the US, you may be able to get accommodations based on the ADA. Reasonable accommodations in this case would simply mean a quiet room for you to work in. And, as you’ve got government contracts and work as a social worker, I’d be willing to bet your employer has plenty of reasons to comply fully and quickly.

    If you’re having panic attacks at this planning stage, I’d guess that noise-canceling headphones won’t do much to help if it comes to pass. Nobody wants to feel uncomfortable or unwell at work, so I really hope you’re able to use this to push for the environment that helps you feel mentally healthy, productive, and happy 🙂

  3. We moved to an open bullpen style office. About 75 people with desks and no walls. It really doesn’t do anything for work collaboration. It did help facilitate recipe sharing, parenting talk, and general coworker distractions.

    I grew up in a large family in a very small house so I am very good at tuning everyone out. Making me the perfect fit for a forced open concept plan. But even I don’t really like it. I don’t have any control over lighting, its all the lights on the floor are on or all the lights on the floor are off. You over hear everyone’s personal phone calls. If your kids school nurse calls to tell you your kid puked in the cafeteria everyone around you hears about your kids puke. I now know way more about my desk neighbors medical history then should be legally aloud. Sometimes leaving the floor for personal calls just isn’t an option and we all have to take them at our desks.

    To help with the noise issue many of my coworkers who need quiet to focus just wear their noise canceling headphones all the time. Which helps them focus but it takes away from the open concept collaboration that the higher ups were hoping for. Because now when you need to get their attention the only option is to send an email or tap them on the shoulder and scare the crap out of them. I set up my 2 computer monitors in a way to kind of create a privacy shield and listen to NPR via my ear buds.

    Good luck. Soon the open conference room concept will go out of fad. But until then Amazon will make bank on all of our frustration inspired same day delivery headphone orders.

  4. Managers and higher-ups love numbers and data. They often have a lot of people trying to claim their time, and so being able to quickly look at a chart or a few hard numbers will get their attention. If they aren’t listening to verbal concerns, take some of the productivity numbers from the articles Catherine listed and turn them into a short presentation. Send that to your boss, and ask them to present it to the ones who are considering the open office change. If you can show with hard numbers that morale will drop and productivity will decline, they’ll be more interested in listening to your (and your coworkers’) other concerns.

  5. I went from a company where I had my own cubicle, workbench, and phone line to one with an open plan. Instead of starting my day by going to my area and checking my messages, I had to go hunt for a place to set up, then waste time looking for/booking a meeting room and running all over the building for meetings because I had no phone number and no cell service in the building. No designated bench space meant more wasted time trying to find one that would suit my needs, getting needed equipment to it, and then losing the space to someone whose work was deemed to be a higher priority. Because that company’s solution was to build more work spaces some day, I found somewhere else to work. It was the fastest way to stop frustrating myself every day.

  6. I work in an open-plan office with hot desks. I actually really enjoy it – we take our laptops with us to meeting, training sessions, and informal catch-ups with colleagues who may be in other teams. Instead of having to take notes in a book and then transcribing it later, I can take meeting notes directly to my laptop.

    Our office has a few individuals cubicles – single desks in glass walled cubicles with doors. If I am taking a phone call, or have to work on a project that requires focus, I can use one. Otherwise, there is a Hush Zone, which is an area of the office specifically for quiet solitary work. A few people work there almost exclusively.

    I miss having a figurine on my desk, but not as much as I thought I would. One colleague has a Pusheen tag attached inside her laptop to personalise it a little. My team leader has an outrageous pink stationery kit, with matching water bottle. So there are still little ways to express yourself. Maybe a loud pencil case (because we don’t have individual drawers for stationery), or a coffee mug from your favourite fandom.

    This is my first experience with hot desking, but having been in the (Australian) workforce for almost a decade, all the offices I’ve worked in have been open plan. Even on days when I’ve been under a lot of pressure, or have really not wanted to talk to anyone, I haven’t minded the open plan arrangement. People tend to be pretty respectful of everyone else’s needs.

  7. I relate to this so much. I’m an adjunct professor and most of work space is on the open office model. It’s great to even have office space as an adjunct, but the open floor plan is rough, particularly since I have social anxiety. What I have found helps immensely is having a few quiet spaces to retreat to when I’m struggling. We have three: a few cubicles for quiet work, a break room which is usually pretty quiet, and private rooms for student conferences. I schedule regular use of all three or will impulsively switch if I’m having a rough day. I wonder if you could ask if you office could do something like that? Could they keep a few cubicles or small offices for employees to reserve and use as they need? Is there a break room or other solitary space that doesn’t get a lot of use? I find even a private lunch hour helps me return to and cope with the open office far better.

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