The overwhelming scientific consensus is that open plan offices make people less productive and pose significant health risks. As such, they are almost undoubtedly the dumbest management fad of all time.
Realizing that, however, doesn't help the millions of workers trying to get some work done in these noisy, distracting environments. So what can you do?
Well, the New York Times recently published a list of suggestions that like add some photos and potted plants to your work area, use noise-canceling headphones, and get out of the office when you need to get some real work done.
Not to worry. There actually IS a way to retain your productivity and limit your stress in an open plan office and, weirdly, it comes from Steve Jobs, of all people. Not directly, but you'll see exactly what I mean if you read this whole column.
Quick background. The primary reason OPOs are so toxic and unproductive is the noise level and, more specifically, the perceived and sometimes subconscious need to monitor all the conversations going on around you.
However, what if there were a simply way to block all out, not by covering it up with music (which is just more noise) but by training your brain to literally become deaf to it? Sound good? Cool, because here's the situation:
1. Some people can focus despite chaos.
When I've written about OPOs in the past, a few reader commented that while they disliked the noise and confusion, they'd managed to block it all out while they were working. They would get so "into the zone" that the noise pollution didn't matter.
This is apparently similar to when Olympic-level athletes ignore the noise and energy of huge crowds and focus on their performance. Such athletes transcend distractions that are far more intrusive than a few conversations.
2. Most people can and do block out voices.
Anybody who's been married knows that sometimes your spouse can be talking while you're doing something else and you will not hear a single word they say. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but I am saying it's a thing.
"a common phenomenon that affects a wide range of individuals... when we unconsciously block out sounds while interacting with a stimulus that we have deliberately chosen to focus on."
OK. Here comes the important part.
3. You can train your brain to ignore distractions.
It's one thing to know that it's possible to "get into the zone" and become selectively deaf to distractions but it's quite another thing to train your brain to do it on cue.
Fortunately, Steve Jobs was a master of a form of meditation that does exactly that. (I covered that method in step-by-step detail in "How Steve Jobs Trained His Own Brain.")
The main thrust of Jobs's mindfulness meditation is taming your internal dialog, but in fact everything you hear is internal dialog because even if it comes from an external source, it must go through your brain and be processed for you to hear it.
Therefore, if you use mindfulness to still your internal dialog, you can use it to become selectively deaf to outside noises and voices. For example, when I was regularly meditating, I once managed to take a power nap while sitting in a nightclub running techno-pop at full blast.
Now, there's no scientific study (that I know of) which tests whether mindfulness eliminates or ameliorates the negative effect of open plan offices. Even so, there are so many well-documented scientifically-proven benefits that it's a classic "what have you got to lose?" situation.
This is not to say that companies should compel employees to meditate so that they can cope with OPOs. And even if that would work (which it wouldn't) OPOs would still spread germs, encourage sexism, and put employees at risk in active shooter situations.
However, if you're stuck working in an OPO, there's a good chance that learning to meditate will help you block out the noise so that you can get work done, with less stress, even though your CEO got snookered into drinking the OPO Kool-Aid.