If you hate your open plan office and are looking for objective data to justify your stance, there's plenty available. Surveys show those who work in open plan offices are less satisfied with their workspace, experts claim open offices distract extroverts and overload introverts, and science has even proven they're more likely to get you sick than a traditional office.

But just because open plan offices are productivity-sapping germ pits (in the opinion of many), doesn't mean you necessarily can avoid working in one. If your boss or your budget requires you to spend your workday in a wide open space, is there anything you can do to keep your sanity and your productivity intact? Thankfully yes, say a handful of experts, who offer the following tips:

1. Develop a 'stay away' signal

One common complaint of open office denizens is that the lack of walls invites every passing colleague to stop for a chat. To get any sort of sustained work done, you're going to need to develop a polite but firm way to communicate that you're head down and not looking to banter -- before someone stops and distracts you.

"A signal can be something as simple as wearing a set of headphones to show that you don't want to be disturbed, or, as I had to at one job, putting a sign on top of your computer that says 'Busy Right Now,'" explains Elan Morgan on Quiet Revolution, the blog associated with Susan Cain's bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking.

Writing on Medium real estate company TheSquareFoot agrees with the general point but offers different suggestions to get coworkers to stay away: "Set aside a block of time each day (several hours) when you're not to be disturbed, even if that means putting it on your calendar for coworkers to see... You could even try this whiteboard for your laptop that essentially asks coworkers not to bother you." Or perhaps this gizmo might help.

2. Get out often

You might not be able to opt out of your open plan office entirely, but you're not chained to your desk either. So when there's an opportunity -- or an in-depth conversation to be had -- try to slip out for a change of scene.

"Research shows that although you might talk with coworkers more in an open office, your conversations can be short as they are overheard by everyone, and it's hard to have a serious meeting. To avoid this, have more in depth conversations with coworkers (anything work related, or beyond a 'how's your weekend?' chat) at a coffee shop, in a conference room, or do a walking meeting around the neighborhood," advises TheSquareFoot.

Not all breaks need be with others, however. "There can be a lot of pressure to socialize with your coworkers during breaks, but if you don't take at least fifteen minutes to lie down in the back of your car and read a book a few times a week, stress can snowball," cautions Morgan. If they're available, green spaces can offer a particularly powerful way to recharge.

3. Personalize your area

You can't control most of what you see in a open office, so make sure that you spend a little effort to personalize what little you can. "Make your own desk yours visually; bring a small plant, get a desk organizer, a pen holder, a lamp, or picture frames. Bring small items that makes the tiny space you have look like yours. This will make you feel like you have a little more control over the environment around you without being a nuisance to co-workers," instructs TheSquareFoot.

Morgan takes things a step further, suggesting that stressed out introverts in particular can benefit from creating faux walls even if real ones aren't available. "I mounted a coat hanger beside my desk. A hanging coat created just enough curtained privacy to define a space where I could work without being distracted and without looking like I was erecting a wall to keep my coworkers out," she reports. "Another option that can define and shelter your space is a freestanding bookshelf or even potted plants."

4. Seek out the quieter hours

Every office has both busy times when everyone is in and bustling about and quieter lulls. Use these rhythms to your advantage. "Consider adjusting your hours so that you have uninterrupted time when coworkers are not there--coming in early before the day gets busy, or staying a little later once everyone is gone," TheSquareFoot writes.

"Mark the quieter times on your calendar so you can get the most out of this valuable breathing space," adds Morgan. "Schedule them as your time to get more difficult work done or just to bliss out at your desk while no one is looking."

5. Block out noise, thoughtfully

"Headphones are the new wall," one open office veteran told the New York Times. If you work in an open office, you know that is totally true. But don't just slap on any old music, TheSquareFoot cautions. Instead, consider carefully what you're listening to on those headphones. Different activities call for different sorts of auditory environments.

"To control excess noise, you could try listening to music, although research suggests that listening to music might impact your productivity if you are trying to retain new information," the post explains. So what's the alternative? "Other research shows that if you pick the right stimulation to drown out the noise you can actually be more productive. It might sound really strange, but try white noise, nature sounds, or ambient music without lyrics."

Published on: Jun 9, 2015
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