If you're working in an office, chances are it's in some variety of the so-called open office. If you're a startup, an open office might be all you can afford. Even large and profitable companies, however, have for decades been embracing bullpens and cubicle farms.

Proponents of open office plans claim that they "increase productivity" by "sparking creativity" or "increasing personal interaction." But that's just biz-blab.

Open offices are popular because they reduce costs by cramming as many people as possible into as small a footprint as possible. If open offices actually made people productive, execs in big companies wouldn't insist on private offices, which they always do.

Because the benefits of an open office are illusory, it's up to you to neutralize the obvious liabilities so that you (and those around you) can actually get some work done. Here's how:

1. Face outward.

If at all possible, arrange your screen and workspace so that somebody can't come up behind you without you first noticing that they're there. This has two benefits.

First, it gives you a modicum of privacy. If somebody wants to look over your shoulder, they must take a specific action, like craning their necks while standing in somebody else's cubicle.

Second, you'll feel safer, because the fear of being blindsided is part of our genetic heritage. If your back is facing outward, you'll feel vulnerable at a gut level, especially if you work with a jerk who thinks it's funny to sneak up behind people and yell "What up?"

2. Make your phone calls elsewhere.

Making calls in a public space entails speaking loudly in order to overcome the ambient noise. Unfortunately, there are few things more irritating than hearing one end of somebody else's loudly articulated phone conversation.

Unless you're a total sociopath, therefore, you'll know that you're annoying your co-workers when you make a call from your workspace, which will make you a less effective communicator. You may feel pressured to end the call prematurely, for instance.

The obvious alternative is to use email and texting to avoid phone calls and then make your calls later, when you're someplace more private, like your home or your parked car. Some open office plans have "phone booths" expressly for this purpose; if so, use them.

3. Buy noise-canceling headphones.

Ambient noise and conversations are distracting and slow you down, so if you're working on something that needs your full attention and concentration, create your own "cone of silence."

Noise-canceling headsets and earbuds come in a wide range of prices. The expensive ones, however, probably have gee-whiz features you'll never use. The cheap ones, on the other hand, may be uncomfortable and not filter out enough noise.

Plan on spending around $150 for a midrange unit. As a bonus, you can use them on airplane flights. No more squalling babies!

Warning: Only use headphones in the office when you must concentrate. If you use them too frequently, you'll seem antisocial, like the weirdo who always keeps his office door closed. ("What exactly is he doing in there all the time?")

4. Work remotely when possible.

I don't know about you, but I've always been able to get twice as much done at home than at any office. However, if you can't always work from home, you can get meaningful work accomplished anyplace within walking distance where there's cell reception.

Seek out quiet places where you can settle in and get some work done without being interrupted. Don't limit your search to cafés with Wi-Fi; they can be as noisy and distracting as the office you're avoiding.

Public libraries are perfect, but when the weather is nice, try a local park that's off the beaten path. Worst case, you can camp out in your parked car, which is also an excellent place to take your power nap, BTW.

5. Enjoy the absurdity of it all.

Working in an open office is like working next to the water cooler. There's always a some work-related conversation or pointless chitchat going on. The opportunities for eavesdropping are endless! Or you can join in! Why not? Everyone else is.

Similarly, an open office guarantees you'll have numerous opportunities to observe human behavior in action. It's like having your own private episodes of The Office running all the time.

For example, I once worked next to a cubicle inhabited by an attractive female programmer. Every male in the building found a daily reason to talk to her. Their ham-handed attempts at flirtation were, for me at least, a source of vast amusement.

I also enjoyed the way people felt obligated to nod and make remarks as they passed each other in the walkway, regardless of how many times they had passed one another already. Here's a real-life conversation I heard outside my cubicle:

  • Three-piece suit No. 1: "How's it hangin'?"
  • Three-piece suit No. 2: "It's a trip."
  • Three-piece suit No. 1: "I can dig it."
  • Me (silently): "Welcome to Bizarro Woodstock."

Seriously, though, you can not just survive but truly thrive in an open office, as long as you're willing to make the extra effort.

Think of it this way: If you remain productive while everyone else is struggling with an inherently distracting and chaotic work environment, maybe someday you'll be able to afford a real office.

Published on: Dec 1, 2014
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